Goddesses of Sculpture Storm Popes’ Palace

A Louise Bourgeois spider from 1995 in the Popes’ Palace
(Photo by Benjamin Sutton)

At the beginning of the 14th century the popes relocated the epicenter of Christianity to the French city of Avignon, and though they went back to Rome less than seven decades later, they left behind a towering medieval palace whose imposing rooms currently house works by Louise Bourgeois, Camille Claudel, Kiki Smith, and other high priestesses of modern and contemporary art. Taking inspiration from the fable of Pope Joan — a charismatic woman who disguised herself as a man and was elected pope in the 9th or 11th century, depending on which version you read, until a pregnancy revealed her gender and precipitated her death — Eric Mezil, director of dealer Yvon Lambert’s private museum, curated the uneven yet exceptional five-woman show “Les Papesses.” Split between the Popes’ Palace and the Collection Lambert, the exhibition features works by the aforementioned artists as well as Belgium’s Berlinde de Bruyckere and Canadian Jana Sterbak. The show foregrounds themes of gender, fairytale, fantasy, and transformation, and when these dovetail with the Palace’s overt Christian imagery and symbolism, the effect is divine.

The exhibition’s centerpiece, the Grand Chapel in which the Popes held services, is dominated by a few large-scale sculptures—the architecture’s grandeur heightens the visceral qualities and visual might of the biggest works—though smaller pieces also command attention.  

Among the former are de Bruyckere’s cast wax forms in pink and red, which have a queasy-making fleshiness to them even when sculpted to look like tree trunks. Two of her pieces here directly reference crucifixion, with waxy human figures slumped atop pillars. The uncanny rendering of the bodies' skin makes them infinitely more jarring than the familiar image of Jesus on the cross.

From the chapel's other end, one of Bourgeois' largest bronze spiders, from 1995, commands the space. In this setting the spider, which the artist considered a mother figure, seems both threatening and nurturing, organic yet not of this world, like some ancient pagan deity. Even Smith, though under-represented in this section of the exhibition, contributes an arresting sculpture of a nude woman in bronze atop a pile of logs. Stationed outside the Chapel's main doorway, as if excluded from the palace’s inner sanctum, her representation of female oppression and martyrdom gains in force. The latent spiritual and religious themes in these and other pieces by Smith, de Bruckyere and Bourgeois are crystalized in this Christianity-soaked setting.

The chapel’s smaller works, meanwhile, also gain new or more overt meanings from the venue. Claudel’s bronze bust of a small child, her eyes closed and head hooded, could be either devout or disturbing, depending on your persuasion. A series of beautiful glass orbs by Sterbak — ranging in size from soccer balls to exercise balls — glows in the light slicing through the Gothic building’s tall, narrow windows. Its title, “Planetarium” (2003), puts viewers in a god-like position, staring down on the sequence of mesmerizing planets. Their surfaces and sizes are perfectly echoed by two historic wig stands made of Venetian glass that sit on a nearby pedestal. Recurring juxtapositions of contemporary and centuries-old objects prove incredibly enriching, and their absence in the section of the show at the Collection Lambert is felt acutely.

While the rest of the works at the Popes’ Palace are not to be missed, especially a series of tapestries by Smith in the tower above the chapel and a terrifying, five-legged, and headless suspended horse corpse made of wax by de Bruckyere in an adjoining room, the exhibition loses its focus at the Collection Lambert. The museum houses some stunning works and installations, to be sure. The opening pairing with Auguste Rodin’s portrait bust of his star pupil and lover, Claudel, alongside her much larger renderings of her mentor, is a must-see. Likewise Claudel’s three portrait busts of her younger brother Paul as a child, adolescent, and adult are also exceptional. They seem full of kindness and affection — yet it was he who perpetuated her imprisonment in an insane asylum until her death. In both instances, Claudel’s portrayals of men she revered are set on edge by their subsequent betrayals.

However, the majority of the Collection Lambert section of the show comes off as haphazard. After the surprising and complimentary site-specificity of the section of the show chez the Popes, the sequencing of installations here feels far less thoughtful, with the exception of one long gallery including Claudel’s busts of her brother, a smaller, wall-mounted spider by Bourgeois, and “Aanéén-genaaid” (1999), a freestanding wax humanoid wrapped in a straightjacket by de Bruyckere. The remaining rooms freely mix pieces by all the artists except Smith, with a couple of smaller alcoves hosting more complex single works. One of these is especially memorable: Sterbak’s “Hot Crown” (1998), a metal sculpture of a suspended crown equipped with an electric motor than heats up and begins to glow as viewers approach. As both a halo and a crown, the sculpture could be a wry commentary on the apparent inseparability of religion and politics, but it is also undeniably creepy, screeching to life like the ghost of a slain king in a Shakespeare tragedy.

As if in afterthought, the exhibition’s last dozen rooms are devoted entirely to Smith’s works, a curatorial decision that undermines the richness of both the show and her practice. Some of the pieces, like a series of large suspended metal sculptures in the shapes of stars, the moon, and other celestial bodies, or a series of small, fairy tale-like porcelain figures, are undeniably stunning. But their segregation from the other artists hobbles the show. The vein of creepy, fantastic, childhood fable imagery running through Smith’s sculptures, drawings, and works on glass are echoed in pieces by Sterbak, Bourgeois, and de Bruyckere, though visitors to “Les Papesses” might easily miss these formal and thematic connections. This disjuncture is also symptomatic of the show’s larger division, which impedes any kind of sustained dialogue between its two halves — the inclusion of some historic or devotional objects at the Collection Lambert would have helped immensely in this regard. As such the exhibition ends up feeling like two separate affairs; one absolutely stunning for its bravura sculptures and subversions of spiritually charged icons, the other rife with unrealized conversations.

To see works from “Les Papesses” click the slideshow.

Les Papesses” continues at the Palais des Papes and Collection Lambert until November 11.