Decadence Now! opens at Galerie Rudolfinum


Prague’s Galerie Rudolfinum has officially opened one of its most ambitious projects to date: the exhibition Decadence Now! Visions of Excess, looking at the use of decadence in contemporary art. The show – featuring work by such artists as Cindy Sherman, Joel-Peter Witkin and the late Robert Mapplethorpe – will shock some but enthuse others, and in all cases draw a strong response.

The Rudolfinum Gallery, led by director Petr Nedoma, has long been one of Prague’s most cutting-edge, in the past featuring landmark shows such as Nan Goldin, Jiří Sopko, or Georg Baselitz. But Decadence Now!, which opened to the public on Thursday, is arguably one of the boldest – bringing together more than 50 works by notable international artists, like Cindy Sherman, Araki, or Czech photographer Ivan Pinkava. The show, which will last until next February, is organised along five main categories: Pain, Pop, Sex, Madness and Death. Some of the images are iconic (such as Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait holding the death’s head cane); all are in some way provocative and explicit.

Gallery director Petr Nedoma told me how the idea for Decadence Now! came about:

“The curator Otto M. Urban built on his experience from an earlier exhibition called Decadence in Morbid Colours, focussing on decadence in Czech art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This show looks back at decadence in contemporary art going back the last 30 years. It is a broad subject matter and it is clear that decadence is not linked or limited to only one period. Like Romanticism, it continues to make resurgences. And just because it has come before, doesn’t mean it won’t come again.”

David Bailey & Damien Hirst,  Jesus is Nailed to the Cross,  2004,  Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery,  Prudence Cuming Asso
What will viewers see? Among other works, large prints from Jeff Koons’ 1990s series Made in Heaven which he did with his ex-wife and former porn star Cicciolina; there are Araki bondage portraits; there are infamous still-lifes by Joel-Peter Witkin which will unquestionably disturb some, given the artist creates stylised tableaux using – among other things – actual human remains: amputated limbs or severed heads.

Despite the strong subject matter Petr Nedoma says the main intention of the exhibition is not to shock. He explains:

“It’s the other way around: it is what they reveal – not the works themselves – that are shocking. You can accuse some artists of intentionally setting out to shock. But in this exhibition we deliberately avoided such work. If you look at what’s on view, compared to the portion of violence, blood, and helplessness which we see every day on the TV news, this show is a walk in the park. These works reflect what already exists, rather than deliberately setting out to shock.”

Terry Rodgers,  The Retreat of Logic,  2008,  TORCH Collection
All the same, a walk in the park may be an exaggeration: a good number of images or installations are disturbing, delving into darker aspects of human nature, intending to provoke, sometimes with a measure of irony. There are fetishised images of harmony versus pain, worthlessness and dirt, godliness but also needles and blood. Decadence Now! won’t be everyone’s “cup of tea”, certainly – and perhaps the term “poison” would be more appropriate - but it will give visitors plenty to think about.