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Murder in the Musée d'Orsay

Violence has never looked so beautiful – or so shocking – as in the scenes depicted by some of history's greatest artists in a new exhibition at one of France's most elegant galleries. John Lichfield reports from Paris

Murder, 'orrible murder. Also rape, crucifixions, hangings, garrottings, stonings, decapitations, cannibalism, torture machines and dancing girls. The most violent and lurid show in Paris this week – and up to 27 June – is not in the cinema, or theatre, or on television or in comic books or mangas. The most violent show in Paris is in the highly respectable Musée d'Orsay and includes paintings by, amongst others, William Blake, Francisco Goya, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, René Magritte and Andy Warhol.

The exhibition is believed to be the first in the world to bring together so many artistic masterpieces – but also cuttings and sketches from old newspapers – on the theme of Crime and Punishment. The show is the brainchild of the former French justice minister, Robert Badinter, 82 this month, who pushed through the abolition of the death penalty, and the retirement of the guillotine, in 1981.

One of the first exhibits in the show is not a work of art but one of the last guillotines to be used in France: displayed in public for the first time in 71 years. It was Mr Badinter who insisted that what he calls "my old enemy" must be included in the exhibition.

The 14ft-high instrument of judicial murder – last used in 1977 for the execution of murderer Hamida Dhandoubi – was located, after a long search, gathering dust on a military base. It is displayed in the Musée d'Orsay half covered by the wispy black veil which protected it between engagements and generated its nickname, "La Veuve" or The Widow.

But why bring together so many images of violence and horror in a museum which is best known for its (mostly) serene and beautiful French state collection of Impressionist paintings? Mr Badinter says that the role of violence in literature – from classical Greek tragedy to Albert Camus or crime thrillers – is well-known. Violence, as an elemental part of human experience, is equally present in art, he says, but has often been brushed aside or ignored.

Violent images may be associated with some painters or sculptors, from Goya to the surrealists. The violence and horror present in the work of other artists such as Degas, Cezanne and Picasso are less well known. One of the most startling paintings in the show is a small canvas by the Impressionist master, Paul Cezanne, best known for his disturbingly spiky, Provençal landscapes, still-lifes and portraits. The small painting is in the unmistakable Cezanne style but shows a man strangling a woman with the help of a female accomplice. In La Femme Etrangleé (The strangled woman), the murderer's shirt is in the haunting shade of blue which appears in many of his paintings.

The chief curator of the exhibition is a celebrated French art historian, Jean Clair. He said: "When Cezanne was a young man, he produced a series of paintings on the theme of violence and especially sexual violence. At that time, he was living a rather disturbed life, especially in his relations with women. Afterwards, he became a quiet and rigid and very private man. But some of those early Cezanne paintings, although little known, are quite extraordinary."

The exhibition, Mr Clair said, showed beauty and horror to be inseparable parts of human experience. "There are some gruesome aspects of the exhibition, including the guillotine. There are also front pages and images from popular newspapers, which you would not normally expect to see in a place like the Musée d'Orsay. But there are also marvellous works by Goya, by Blake, by Géricault, by Delacroix, by Degas ... We are very lucky, especially, to have some wonderful works on loan from Britain. There are Blakes but also works by Walter Richard Sickert, a painter whom, as far as I know, has never been shown in France before."

Mr Clair said that the "paradox" of the exhibition is perfectly captured by the work by the early 19th-century French artist, Théodore Géricault, which was selected for a startling poster which is now displayed all over Paris. The image shows a jumble of severed arms and feet wrapped in bloody bandages. The body parts are bathed in gentle light and painted as exquisitely as any classical nude.

A murder? A judicial dismemberment? The title is deliberately uninformative. It is simply called Study of feet and hands.

"The Gericault painting is, if you like, a horrific image of cruelty but is also one of the purest masterpieces of French 19th century painting," Mr Clair said. "So what are we saying? That art can somehow redeem horror by making it beautiful? Not exactly. That art can produce beauty from horror and death? Yes, but not in the ordinary meaning of the word beauty: rather by giving us the deepest possible sense of what life is about."

The best work in the exhibition, he says, has the same capacity to pose unanswerable, endlessly echoing questions about the human psyche as Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Lady Macbeth has, in fact, a section to herself, including images by the Swiss early 19th-century painter Johann Fussli (from the Tate Gallery and the Louvre) and the French painter Charles Louis Muller.

The theme of the female criminal or murderess – as somehow more horrific than the male killer – runs through the exhibition. There is a large section dedicated to images of Charlotte Corday, the young woman who murdered the French revolutionary mass-killer, Jean-Paul Marat, in his bath in 1793. There are early 19th-century Corday-Marat paintings but also later versions by Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso.

In the Sickert paintings mentioned by Mr Clair, the connection between art and crime is explicit. The two canvasses, variants on the same subject painted around 1909, show two men discussing a robbery in a squalid room. Both are called What shall we do for the rent. One is also called Summer Afternoon or The Camden Town Murder.

German-born Sickert, as the catalogue points out, has been fingered by the crime novelist Patricia Cornwell as a possible suspect for the Jack the Ripper murders in late 19th-century London.

The prize for the most horrific images goes, perhaps unsurprisingly to the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). There are two beautiful, almost pastel-shaded Goya canvasses showing enthusiastic cannibals, dismembering and consuming their victims. The catalogue delicately suggests that the "absolute horror" of the subject is matched by "aesthetic perfection" and "chromatic and compositional balance" of the paintings. Maybe.

It is equally unsettling to come across one of the celebrated sculptures by the Impressionist, Edgar Degas, of dancing girls from the Paris ballet. What has a 14-year-old ballerina to do with Crime and Punishment? Nearby is a little-known Degas canvas from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which shows a beautifully coloured and lit late 19th-century interior, a rifled suit-case, a menacing-looking man and a distraught, half-dressed kneeling woman. The official title is Intérieur but the painting has also come to be known as Le Viol or The Rape.

But what about the dancing girl? Mr Clair, the curator, explained that Degas was much taken by late 19th-century theories that criminal characteristics could be read in people's faces and head shapes. His early images and sculptures of 13- and 14-year-old dancing girls were innocent. His later ones were deliberately given the alleged female criminal characteristics.

At that time, the innocent young ballerinas at the Paris opera, known as "petits rats", were recruited from the working classes. They were treated as prostitutes and were said to be riddled with venereal disease which they passed on to the wealthy men who used them.

Whose crime and whose punishment?

*Crime et Châtiment is at the Musée d'Orsay every day except Monday until 27 June, €9.50.