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Vanités at Musée Maillol and Red Rivers by Starling

4037160251_4444f228b5 Text: Kay Roberts
Image: Simon Starling

The choice of subject matter for an artist, does it start with an object or start with an idea?  Image v. concept, both valid. These two shows are in many ways the opposite ends of the spectrum. Vanités at Musée Maillol is a group show, the image of the skull is the only connection between artists from the 16th century to the present day. A pick and mix - from Caravagio, de la Tour, Goya, Cezanne; past masters of the skill of painting to modern contemporary figures including Baselitz, Clemente, Haring,  Warhol, Messager, Pierre and Gilles, the Chapman Brothers and Hirst et al. Over three floors of the museum, a cornucopia of art styles through the ages - the ghost is Damien Hirst’s “Diamond Skull” - shown in London in a darkened room to ten people at a time, limited to a 5 minute slot, then sold for a small fortune: here a print version “For the Love of God, Laugh” is on show but not the sculpture.

The skull, a reminder of our mortality, a symbol of death. To contemplate a skull is to contemplate death; artists through the ages have been fascinated by its allegorical potential. Texts in the exhibition remind us that “Vanity, all is Vanity”; but also our forlorn hope that “It is always the others who die”. A fascinating display of momento mori jewellery from the Venetian Condagnato Family and death head walking sticks illustrate the perpetual use of the skull and skeleton as decorative display. The T-shirts and jewelery on sale at the museum illustrate the universal appeal of the macabre. At the heart of the exhibition is a love of the image, with a chance to compare styles of a rich variety of artists. Something for everyone.

In comparison Red Rivers by Simon Starling is a multi-layering of history, fantasy and technique. The kind of exhibition you have to see to understand, an experience helped by knowing the idea behind the work. There are two works by Starling, who won the Turner Prize in 2005, shown at Kamel Mennour, part of the yearly Berlin-Paris exchange programme. Both are complex so this is a simple background to one: “In Search of the Elusive Opkapi”. Starling’s video is saturated red, the red of a darkroom light. The enlarger light clicks on, a photographic negative is being exposed and then developed. The printing continues gradually showing stills of a journey by canoe down a river, a voice over describes another journey down a river; one is in 2009 by Starling & friend down the Hudson; the other in 1909 by the zoologist and photographer Herbert Lang, down the Congo. The two stories unfold, both end in the Museum of Natural history New York. The work is the mix of the two journeys, the imposition of Starling’s journey on a real history to create an art piece. His works need time, the concept is subtle, perhaps not for everyone, but for sure it is a work that lingers afterwards.

Vanités : de Caravage de Damien Hirst
Until 28 June
Open 11am -6pm
Musée Maillol Fondation Dina Vierny
61, rue de Grenellle
75007 Paris

Simon Starling : Red Rivers
Until 6 March
Open Tuesday- Saturday, 11am - 7pm
Kamel Mennour
47 rue St André des Arts
75006 Paris

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