Left: La Mauresque, 2019 © Viviane Sassen. Right: V&M, 2019 © Viviane Sassen 

Viviane Sassen tells tales of sexuality and intrigue at the French royal court

The Dutch photographer was granted exclusive access to Versailles' mysterious gallery of broken sculptures, which inspired an entire new series.

by Rolien Zonneveld
11 June 2020, 6:17pm

Left: La Mauresque, 2019 © Viviane Sassen. Right: V&M, 2019 © Viviane Sassen 

There is a baroque marble sculpture that has stuck with me ever since I saw it in Villa Borghese in Rome aged 15. It depicts the abduction of Proserpina by the Greek god Pluto, who intends to take her to the underworld. It's a brutal yet oddly tender sculpture: with one hand he seizes her by the waist, as she throws her arms out in an attempt to escape, while with the other hand he firmly squeezes her thigh -- her marble flesh yielding to the pressure of his grip. It's without doubt a sexually charged and slightly uncomfortable artwork, exhibited right in the middle of Italian grandeur and glory. No wonder it left such an impression.

Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen had a similar experience when she was visiting Palais Versailles at the age of 14. Wandering around the palace's great halls, lush garden and galleries of nude sculptures, she was shocked by the level of sensuality it all exuded. It was all far removed from the small town in the east of the Netherlands, where she was living at the time -- its practical Calvinism in stark contrast to the over-the-top, opulent style the French embraced. Little did she know that a few decades later she would return to Versailles -- this time as an autonomous artist who had been granted exclusive access to the Galerie des Sculptures et des Moulages, where Versailles' damaged and weathered sculptures are kept for restoration.

Syph #01R, 2019 © Viviane Sassen

Her visit to the gallery would mark the beginning of her exploration of the rich erotic and medical histories that surrounded the French royal court in the 17th and18th centuries. This was a time of Marie Antoinette, excess and power, but there are also plenty of stories about illness, decay and death to be found. Take syphilis for example, a severe sexually transmittable disease that swept through the court, leaving many people deformed. In Versailles there are still metallic prosthetic noses displayed that were constructed for syphilis sufferers. Fascinated by the fact that these prosthetics were all that remained while its wearers were gone, Viviane decided to photograph them -- cherishing them like tokens of a bygone era of sexual decadence.

The photo became part of a new series that is a clear departure from her normal work. Venus & Mercury, which is currently on display in Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, is even more abstract than her previous work, and is more montage-based. While Viviane is known for her use of geometric shapes -- often abstractions of bodies -- this time she has cut photographs of the marble sculptures up, and by juxtaposing these disembodied halves, turned them into new bodies again. The photographer is also celebrated for her rich use of colour, which she has applied to Venus & Mercury as well: the pictures are punctuated with vivid splashes of pigment and colours like fiery red -- turning the works into something slightly sinister yet poetic.

There are many more fascinating tales that lie behind the exhibition at Huis Marseille -- stories about royal mistresses, poisoners and soothsayers, among others -- which are all imagined and interpreted through the visionary lens of Viviane. Each gallery tells a separate story; together they form a linked sequence of remarkable histories, with accompanying poetic texts, some of which are recited by Tilda Swinton in a hypnotic video installation. Together it forms a vision of a Palais Versailles a world away from whatever sugar-candied, Sofia Coppolla-flavoured fantasies you had about previously.

Venus & Mercury is on show at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, till the 30th of August. Visit here for more information.

Prehendre, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
The Old Centaur, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
Pénicilline, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
Pancrastinae #01, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
Occo, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
Code Blue, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
Menhir, 2019 © Viviane Sassen
Viviane Sassen