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Since the first blade plunged in 1792, the French guillotine has inspired dread and dark nicknames: the widow, the barber, the national razor. Now add a contemporary label: artistic muse.
A 4-meter, or 14-foot, tall guillotine — veiled in black drifts of gauzy fabric — has managed to inspire a new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay and provoke a soul-searching struggle among France’s elite arbiters of culture about what constitutes good taste for a museum.
The spring-action, 1872-vintage guillotine occupies a prime position in a Crime and Punishment exhibition that has evolved from a small show to a popular hit in the French capital. Yet the scaffold nearly was banished because it was considered too repugnant for a gallery showing.
For the Musée d’Orsay, allowing the veiled guillotine was a contentious step, so fraught that it posts alerts on its Web site warning that the exhibition of more than 400 art works from Goya to Picasso may be disturbing for younger visitors. Those admonitions are largely unheeded. The artful mayhem — images of severed heads, amputated body parts, pale blue corpses and damsels with blood on their hands and daggers — is drawing up to 4,000 people a day, nearly double the usual traffic for special exhibitions.
Group reservations for the local lycées are sold out through the end of the show on June 10 and two-hour lines outside are crowded with visitors from a demographic group — ages 15 to 25 — that is ordinarily elusive for museums.
They linger by the guillotine, which is watched over by the glowing red eyes of a Lucifer portrait by Franz von Stuck. For this generation, it is a first introduction since the guillotine had been hidden from public view for 25 years to let passions cool after the death penalty was abolished in 1981.