The return of France’s guillotine

The machine is the centrepiece of a new crime exhibit

The return of France’s guillotine

Photograph by Horacio Villalobos/ EPA/ Keystone

A new exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris features works by some of the greatest names in art: René Magritte, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso. Among all these masterpieces, one macabre fixture is stealing the show. Draped in a black veil, a guillotine is on display.

Called Crime and Punishment after Dostoyevsky’s novel, the exhibit features works like Paul Cézanne’s La femme étranglée, which depicts a murder taking place, and a painting by Théodore Géricault, also used in the museum’s promotional material, that shows dismembered arms and feet wrapped in gory bandages. (As some pieces may be shocking, children are warned against attending.) Lawyer and former French justice minister Robert Badinter, who was instrumental in setting up the exhibit, calls it an attempt to “see crime and justice through the artist’s eyes.” But it’s also a comment on France’s sometimes bloody past, as the guillotine makes clear. The 14-foot-tall machine (last used to execute murderer Hamida Dhandoubi, in 1977) is installed near a quote from Victor Hugo. “One can have a certain indifference about the death penalty,” it says, “until one has seen the guillotine.”

Badinter should know. A crusader against the death penalty, abolished in 1981, Badinter, who once witnessed the death of a client by guillotine, pushed for its inclusion in the exhibit. “This instrument of death has become a museum object,” he said. “What a victory for supporters of abolishing the death penalty!”

Museum object or not, it remains a powerful symbol of capital punishment and revolutionary violence, says Samir Saul, a professor of French history at the Université de Montréal, adding that its inclusion undoubtedly “opens old wounds.” In a recent interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, Badinter recalled how, after abolition in 1981, he requested the guillotine be displayed in a museum—but not for at least 25 years, so tempers had a chance to cool.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.