Blood, pain and violence nothing new in art, says curator of Prague exhibition that warns the sensitive to think twice before entering

David Bailey & Damien Hirst, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross, 2004, Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, Prudence Cuming Asso

Decadence Now! at Prague’s Rudolfinum gallery has become one of the most talked about exhibitions of the year in the Czech Republic. An extremely ambitious show by local standards, it brings together over 140 pieces by leading contemporary artists, including Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Gilbert and George, and Cindy Sherman. Sections with titles like Sex, Pain and Death feature many works that are unusually graphic, some might say shocking. Indeed, under 15s are not allowed to enter unaccompanied.

Joel Peter Witkin - 'The Graces',  Courtesy of Baudoin Lebon,  Paris
I discussed the exhibition with its curator, art historian Otto M Urban, and began by asking: what does the art on show at Decadence Now! say about contemporary society?

“The same thing that works showed 100 or 200 years ago. We have to remember that even Goya’s late Black Paintings were quite controversial and caused quite radical criticism.

“Artists like Goya, Felicien Rops, Otto Dix, Hans Bellmer, or the contemporary artists, are dealing with the dark side of human existence, the human mind, human life, the human body.

“They can tell us that our society is still full of prejudices, clichés, misunderstandings – even if we feel that everything is possible, everything is available and everything already exists.”

The subtitle of the show is Visions of Excess. What is the visitor meant to get from viewing the excess on show here?

“Actually the subtitle is based on the American edition of a collection of writings from the late ‘20s and 1930s by the French philosopher Georges Bataille. Because in fact for my concept Bataille was very inspiring. He is one of the big thinkers of the 20th century, whose ideas connect a Baudelairian tradition from the late 19th century with nowadays.

David Bailey & Damien Hirst - 'Jesus is Nailed to the Cross',  Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery,  Prudence Cuming Asso
“And what should the visitor gain from seeing the show? Several things, of course. First of all, the visitor has the chance to see a collection of artistically high quality paintings, photographs, sculptures, works of art which – using the language of visual culture – are touching sometimes very subjective, very personal, very emotional…parts of our existence.

“I believe that to deal with problems like death, madness and so on it’s much easier through art than through real personal experience. Art is in a certain sense like a painful experience without pain.”

At the entrance you warn people of a sensitive disposition that there could be some images here that could be too strong for them. What particular images here, what particular works, could cause offence, do you think?

“That’s a question. We didn’t to cause any scandals or any controversies or anything like that. You know, I’m an art historian, and my main field is the late 19th century and early 20th century. So my approach to contemporary art is somehow traditional.

“On the other hand we…use the experiences of our colleagues from abroad, where these kind of warnings are a regular part of similar exhibitions…It’s actually quite standard at exhibitions which present works which are on the edge of explicit sexual representation, religious themes, the representation of pain or violence and so on.

Cindy Sherman - Untitled # 255,  Courtesy of Cindy Sherman & Metro Pictures,  New York
“I believe that it’s sort of fair to inform visitors that there are works which might be…problematic. We didn’t want to shock somehow someone who would visit the show and suddenly see works which would be offending. I think it’s a result of the rising political correctness of nowadays.”

The human body has of course featured in art forever. But perhaps not in the way we see here. We see a lot of erections, for example, we see x-rays, we see a lot of blood. Do you think that we lose something when nothing is left to the imagination?

“Not really. I don’t think it’s just typical of contemporary art. If you looked at ancient Greek or Roman sculptures in particular you would find sculptures of different hermaphrodites, and dwarves as well.

“Just look at the medieval representations of the crucified Christ, the torturing of Christ, the torturing of saints. Imagine the famous painting by Titian of Apollo and Marysas, where a human being that is still alive is skinned.

“So, blood, pain, violence is not something that is typical of contemporary art. It’s something that has been part of art since the beginning. That’s why I don’t think we’re losing something.

Marc Bijl - 'Porn',  Dimitris Gigourtakis Collection,  Courtesy of The Breeder,  Athens
“You could ask the same question: are we losing some mystery after seeing the bloodied body of Jesus Christ taken down from the cross? There was a certain reason why Renaissance painters presented every single wound, every single drop of blood on the body of Christ.

“This is part of the tradition. The problem is we are much more sensitive to something that is current, something that is contemporary, because we feel that it’s around us.

“I would say if we presented here Gruenewald’s Isenheim Altar, which is very well known, because it’s a naturalistic, explicit representation of pain, torture, suffering and so on, people would not be so shocked as after seeing the pieces by David Bailey and Damien Hirst – just because it’s painted. But what is represented is actually the same.”

Is there any way in which artists can go too far? For instance, in the next room here I saw a photograph of a human head on a plate. Could that be going too far?

“You know, that’s the same problem as the previous question. An executed human head on a plate is based on the biblical story of Salome and the head of St John the Baptist.

“Again if you look at art history, already from the late Gothic and since then the motive of an executed human head is already part of the visual culture. Here it’s also an illusion. It’s not an executed head. The rest of the body is hidden below the table.

“It’s again a problem of representation. You would never say after seeing a painting of St John the Baptist, or a sculpture representing the same…but if it’s a photograph, we take it as reality.”

Zhang Peng - 'Desiring Happiness No. 1'
I thought it was a real head, I have to admit.

“It is a real head, but not an executed head. It’s a dead body, in some Mexican morgue, and the photographer [Joel-Peter] Witkin made a hole in the table and put the head through the hole, so it feels like it’s an executed head, but it’s not.”

But it’s still a real dead person.

“It’s still a real dead person, yes.”

Doesn’t that disrespect the dead, in a way?

“Not really, I think it’s completely the opposite. If you talked to Witkin, the photographer who did that, he has an extremely ethical attitude to what he is photographing. He deals with every single relict or limb or part of the human body with extreme respect.

“He is showing us something which was a regular part of the visual culture, or culture in general. Just remember ossuaries, which are nowadays big tourist attractions.

“Is it OK to go to an ossuary just as an attraction? I would say it’s quiet a serious question: what’s worse ethically, to open these kind of places for tourists? Or to photograph, with respect, the remains of dead people?”

The Decadence Now! exhibition at Rudolfinum is part of a larger project, with concurrent shows running at other Czech galleries. Find out more at: