Bjørn Nørgaard, Marat - who was Corday?, 1976/82. The work belongs to HEART Herning Kunstmuseum of Contemporary Art. Copyright Bjørn Nørgaard.

Bjørn Nørgaard, Marat - who was Corday?, 1976/82. The work belongs to HEART Herning Kunstmuseum of Contemporary Art. Copyright Bjørn Nørgaard.

Introduction to the work Marat - who was Corday?

A tableau, an accumulation of objects, of quotes, references, forms, and materials – where should one begin? Where should one end?  Why not try by referring to the classic structure of images: foreground, middle distance, background?

Our gaze and our body are stopped by a grid that divides the tableau into uniform squares. Like the grids employed by Renaissance artists, or by archaeologists on their excavations, it creates a system; it charts and structures in an attempt at creating an overview. It helps create a break with the monumental potential that sculpture may have had, separating the work into smaller units, each framed and easier to take in. This gives us the opportunity to see each individual object and its shape and form anew. On the grid itself a number of portraits are hung, all depicting women: Who are they? And who was ”Corday”?

Middle distance
In the middle distance of the work a man lies in a bathtub. The figure is a plaster cast of the artist himself – a direct imprint of reality? In front of him is an array of everyday objects: coffee cup, egg, can of beer, bread, knife, crime novel, electric bulb, candle … in his hand he holds his hand-written diary, its entries including deliberations on the French revolution figure Jean-Paul Marat (1743-93) and on the difficulties inherent in creating a self-managed workplace such as the Eks-Skolen Printing Press – bringing together the 18th century and the present.

A mirror reflecting the work’s middle ground, foreground, and those of us who watch it. We, too, are part of the work, of the discussion unfolding in it.

The red thread
Is there a leitmotif, a red thread running through it all? Yes, there is! We can trace it diagonally through the work …

The background behind the motif

The tableau represents Bjørn Nørgaard’s everyday reimagining of a classicist painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) depicting Marat, a leading figure of the French Revolution who was murdered by Charlotte Corday (1768-93). She killed Marat in his bathtub in 1793 and was subsequently executed by guillotining. The women featured on the grid are famous and unknown figures mixed among each other. They lived at different times and had different endeavours, but seem to have had one common denominator: All are strong women who fought for their chosen cause.

A present-day perspective
The motif has been brought up to date; the question posed in the title it adopts a different perspective than the original work. David did not intend for anyone to be interested in the murderess as anything other than a killer. In contrast to David’s picture, where the tabletop in front of Marat bears nothing other than pen and ink, the tabletop in Nørgaard’s tableau is filled with objects garnered from the artist’s overall vocabulary; examples include the egg, the candle, the knife, the bread, the light bulb, a diary, an issue of Donald Duck, and the Bible. Bjørn Nørgaard posed for the figure of the dead Marat himself and has placed his own diary of records and reflections in the outstretched hand of the figure, which is constructed from plaster bandages. The question Who was Corday?  expresses the central idea of the work: to move past the fact of the murder and present the murderer as someone who acted within a specific reality, someone who had her reasons for doing what she did and living life the way she did.

The human figure

A keen interest in human beings and in the human figure in relation to the world is a principal element in Nørgaard’s own art. Taking his point of departure in e.g. his own action, Nørgaard creates a number of tableaux like this in the mid-1970s, basing them on plaser casts of his own body. Up through the 1980s to the present day Nørgaard works intensively with the human figure as material.  One might say that he oscillates between the actioning body, the statuesque body, and a modelled body.

Birgitte Anderberg, Bjørn Nørgaard. Sculptor, in the book accompanying the exhibition.

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