Sleepless – The Bed in History and Contemporary Art

21er Haus of the Belvedere
30 January – 7 June 2015
Curated by Mario Codognato

Almost fifty years ago, Yoko Ono and John Lennon went to bed together to protest against the war. Then the most famous couple in the art world, they made their honeymoon a public event and proclaimed from bed: ‘Make love, not war!’ Due to this performance by Ono and Lennon, the bed became a political instrument in the visual arts. Since the beginning of time, the bed has fulfilled various functions – not only as a place for sleep and rest, but also as a scene of birth and death and a space of eroticism, sex, and violence, as well as of illness and solitude. The bed accompanies the cycle of life in all the crucial phases that have an impact on the development of an individual and of culture in general. The exhibition Sleepless – The Bed in History and Contemporary Art, on view from 30 January to 7 June at the 21er Haus, focuses on the bed as a motif in art history. The show comprises paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and video works, its spectrum spanning from the Old Masters to the present day and juxtaposing works related to one another thematically and associatively.


An item usually associated with sleep, the bed has accompanied us throughout human history. As an object, it responds to the appearance and shape of the human body, abstracting and stylising it in a form that imitates its erect, spread-eagled position. The depiction and role of the bed in art history have developed from a background prop to an autonomous motif whose metaphorical and/or anthropomorphic content has always been taken into account.


Most people are born in bed, so that one might say that the miracle of life originates in it. One of the exhibits, a painting by Lavinia Fontana dating from the sixteenth century, shows an infant in a cradle – probably the first rendering of the subject in art history. The tradition of depicting the event of birth has continued to this very day, for example in the art of Robert Gober or Sherrie Levine. Numerous contemporary artists have been inspired by the form of the bed, such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Diane Arbus, Lucian Freud, Yayoi Kusama über Jannis Kounellis, Antoni Tàpies, Rosemarie Trockel, Juergen Teller, Franz West, and Rachel Whiteread, or have used the bed as a ready-made, such as Tracey Emin, Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, Jim Lambie, and Sarah Lucas. In addition, works by Pierre Bonnard, Agostino Carracci, Jota Castro, Artemisia Gentileschi, Nan Goldin, Maria Lassnig, Bettina Rheims, and Erwin Wurm concentrate on the bed as a central motif.


‘Starting out from one of the most ordinary objects, this exhibition takes us on a journey through the history of mankind and art. For this object is also the place in which the most normal and most important tasks in life are performed and which is so universal that each and every individual uses a variant of it. It is an object so trivial that its omnipresence in life and art has become a matter of course,’ Agnes Husslein-Arco, Director of the Belvedere and 21er Haus, describes the exhibition.


‘The bed as an object or theme has always accompanied humanity, from the very outset and in civilisations throughout the world. As a place and space, it is dialectic and constantly in embryo. Some of the most important and crucial things in our lives happen in and around the bed,’ points out Mario Codognato, Chief Curator of the 21er Haus.


The exhibition ranges from Pompeian frescoes that were installed as ‘advertising signs’ outside brothels, copper engravings by Agostino Carracci, coloured Japanese woodblock prints, and Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Beheading Holofernes to contemporary renderings of the bed as a stage for erotic, violent, humorous, sarcastic, and critical scenes. In Adam and Eve in Cyber-Eden, the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani depicts the couple in an unmistakable position in bed, where both of them are diverted by such technological gadgets as iPod and laptop computer. Critical voices can also be heard in the works by Mikhael Subotzky and Lucinda Devlin, who document inhumane sleeping quarters in South African prisons and American death row locations. Moreover, the bed is variously described as a place of illness, misery, solitude, and contemplation, such as in pictures of people in hospital beds by Maria Lassnig, Inge Morath, and Josef Karl Rädler, or in images of women alone in bed who might expect someone, enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, or be suffering from loneliness, such as in works by Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, Pierre Bonnard, and Otto Dix.


Original historical documents from the Austrian National Library and the Museum of Military History are confronted with contemporary on-set shots highlighting the bed as a theatrical scene. Photographs of famous personalities or historic events, all of which naturally took place in bed, are juxtaposed with one another: in this way, for example, Marilyn Monroe meets young Kate Moss, and the very last pictures of important personalities on their deathbeds and celebrated artists who had themselves portrayed on a bed invite comparison.


Sleepless – The Bed in History and Contemporary Art offers a historical and cross-media foray into the bed and its history in the visual arts and analyses the bed and its use in individual, social, medical, and geographic contexts. The exhibition visualises all those spheres of life and art taking place in, underneath, beside, or with the aid of the bed in nine chapters: ‘Birth’, ‘Love’, ‘Solitude, ‘Illness’, ‘Death’, ‘Violence’, Politics’, ‘Myth’, and ‘Anthropomorphism’.



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