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Friday, March 11, 2016

Antoine Wiertz

L'Inhumation Precipitate, (The Burial Precipitated) 1854, Antoine Wiertz, depicts a cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin.
Guillotined Head, 1855, Antoine Joseph Wiertz
As we get older, most of us have wondered, if for only brief moments, what it's like to die. Early one morning in 1848, two men and a woman came to the square in front of the City Hall, in Brussels, where a public execution was due to take place shortly after dawn. They planned to con-duct a ground-breaking scien-tific experiment. By prior ar-rangement with the Belgian authorities, they were permit-ted to climb onto the scaffold and wait next to the guillotine at the spot where the severed heads of two condemned criminals were scheduled to drop into a red sack. One of the men was Antoine Joseph Wiertz, a well known Belgian painter as well as a good hypnotic subject. With him was a noted hypnotist, and a witness. Wiertz’s purpose was to carry out a unique experiment. Long haunted by the desire to know whether a severed head remained conscious after a guillotining, the painter had agreed to be hypnotized and instructed to identify himself with a man who was about to be executed for murder. The plan was to follow the murderer’s thoughts and feel any sensations, which he was to express aloud. He was also to take special note of any mental conditions during decapitation, so that when the head fell in the basket he could penetrate the brain and give an account of its last thoughts. Incredible as it may seem to us, his scheme appears to have worked, perhaps rather too well. As soon as the tumbrel carrying the condemned men to their deaths appeared, Wiertz began to panic. He reported it seemed that the guillotine’s blade was cleaving his own flesh. It was not until the killers ascended the scaffold that Wiertz recovered himself sufficiently to ask the hypnotist to put him in rapport with the cut off head. He made some preparations and everyone waited, with excitement, for the fall of a human head.

Wiertz was a prolific painter of self-portraits, his first at the age of eighteen.
If all artists are deemed a little bit weird, Antoine Wiertz was a little bit weirder than most. Born in the small Belgian town of Dinant, just east of the French border in 1806, to a rather poor family, young Antoine entered the Antwerp Art Academy in 1820 at the age of fourteen. He showed such promise as an artist the king of the Netherlands awarded him a stipend a year later, which enabled the gifted young painter to study in Paris, especially the old masters in the Louvre. He was highly influenced by Peter Paul Rubens and Michelangelo. In 1828, Wiertz came in second in the competition for the prestigious Prix de Rome. A second attempt in 1832 led to his winning, which enabled him to go to the French Academy at Rome. There Wiertz remained from 1834 until 1837. Upon his return to Belgium, Wiertz established a studio in Liège (east-central Belgium) to be near his mother. There he worked on his first great work, Greeks and Trojans fighting for the body of Patroclus, (below) which he finished in 1836. Wiertz submitted the work for the Paris Salon of 1838, but it arrived too late and was refused.
Les Grecs et les Troyens se disputant le corps de Patrocle, 1836, Antoine Wiertz
Two Girls--The Beautiful Rosine,
1947, Antoine Wiertz.
At the Paris Salon of 1839, Wiertz showed not only his Patrocles, but also three other works, though they were badly placed and poorly lit. His work elicited mostly indifference on the part of the public, and sarcasm among the critics. This second humiliation led to a deep resentment toward art critics and against the Paris art scene in general. After the Paris disaster, Wiertz became more and more excessive and eccentric in his work. With the death of his mother in 1845, Wiertz left Liege to settle in Brussels. During this period he painted a confrontation between beauty and death, Deux Jeunes Illes—La Belle Rosine (Two Girls--The Beautiful Rosine) in 1847, (right) which remains perhaps his most famous work. Wiertz' monumental paint-ings often moved between classical Academism and lurid Romanticism, veering toward the grandiose and the ridiculous. Although his work was often derided as "art pompier" (firefighter art), his visual language, nevertheless, presages Symbolism and a certain kind of Surrealism, both of which would later be very strong in Belgian painting.

Triumph of Christus, 1848, Antoine Wiertz
One of the most monumental of Wiertz's canvases, painted in 1848, is his Triumph of Christus (above) which today hangs as the gargantuan centerpiece in the Main Hall of The Wiertz Museum in Brussels (below). The museum is the result of difficult negotiations Wiertz precipitated with the Belgian government, whereby he was able to realize his dream to turn his last studio into a museum for his works. The Belgian State bought a piece of land and funded the construction of a huge hall to accommodate the painter's monumental works. In exchange, Wiertz donated all his paintings to the Belgian government, with the express proviso that they should remain in his studio both during and after his lifetime. Wiertz died in his studio in 1865 at the age of fifty-nine. The Antoine Wiertz Museum is now one of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, located in the Leopold district of Brussels, near the Luxembourg railway station. Today it is overshadowed by the European Parliament complex. The museum is devoted to the works of one of Brussel's most distinctive, and disagreeable, 19th-century artists. However, the Wiertz Museum seldom attracts more than ten visitors a day, leaving the Belgian government legally stuck with all 220 of Wiertz's works, most of them quite dreadful along with an obligation to display them forever. Some consider Wiertz the worst painter to ever have a government-funded museum all to himself.

Main hall of The Wiertz Museum, Brussels, Belgium. Notice the sizable crowd.
Oh, I almost forgot... How did the little experiment with hypnosis and the guillotine turn out? See for yourself below. The triptych Last Thoughts (below), painted by Wiertz is an illustrated testimony to the three minutes Wiertz claims the severed head continued to "live" and to what he saw and felt while in hypnotic "rapport" with the deceased's brain.

The painting is in pretty bad condition. The description from Wiertz (below) suggests what it's like to die such a horrible death. The triptych painting was painted some five years after the grotesque experiment.
The First minute, on the scaffold:
A horrible buzzing noise, the sound of the blade descending. The victim believes that he has been struck by lightning, not the axe. Astonishingly, the head lies under the scaffold and yet still believes it is above, still believes itself to be part of the body, and still waits for the blow that will cut it off. Horrible choking! No way to breathe. The asphyxia is appalling. It comes from an inhuman, supernatural hand, weighing down like a mountain on the head and neck. A cloud of fire passes before his eyes. Everything is red and glitters.
Second minute, Under the scaffold:
Now comes the moment when the executed man thinks he is stretching his cramped, trembling hands towards the dying head. It is the same instinct that drives us to press a hand against a gaping wound. And it occurs with the dreadful intention of setting the head back on the trunk, to preserve a little blood, a little life. Delirium redoubles his strength and energy. In his imagination, it seems that his head is on fire and spins in a dizzying motion, that the universe collapses and turns with it, as a phosphorescent liquid swirls around and merges with his skull. A moment later his head is plunging into the depths of eternity. That’s when a swarm of images, each more terrible than the one before, crowd into a soul beaten by the fiery breath of nameless pain. The guillotined head sees his coffin, sees his trunk and limbs collapse, ready to be enclosed in the wooden box in which thousands of worms are about to devour his flesh. Physicians explore the tissue of his neck with the tip of a scalpel. Every nick is a bite of fire. The exhausted brain sees small children near him. He likes that. That’s him: his hair blond and curly, his cheeks round and pink. Meanwhile, he feels the brain continue to sink and feels sharp stabs of pain.
Third minute, In eternity:
He is not yet dead. The head still thinks and suffers a fire that burns, suffers the dagger that dismembers, suffers the poison that cramps, suffers in the limbs, as they are sawn through, suffers in his viscera, as they are torn out, suffers in his flesh, as it is hacked and trampled down, suffers in his bones, which are slowly boiled in bubbling oil. All this suffering put together still cannot convey any idea of what the executed man is going through. And here a thought makes him stiff with terror: Is he already dead and must he suffer like this from now on? Perhaps for all eternity?*
Christ in the Tomb triptych, 1839, Antoine Wiertz

*Mike Dash, A Blast from History, January, 2011

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