On ViewMusée d'Orsay
Through January 25, 2015
No better time than the present, considering the parlous state of the world, to create an exhibit as audacious and ambitious as Sade: Attacking the Sun. With a focus not on the man and the scandals but on his range of influence and continuing pertinence, it mounts a considerable array of visual works that includes many from iconic figures not usually associated with the customary Sadean triad of sexual excess, violence, and perversion. Among them are Delacroix, Courbet, Degas, Cézanne, Rodin, and Picasso—all to bear witness and help explain Sade’s pivotal presence in the modern and post-modern imagination—not as libertine and provocateur but as catalyst and crucible.
Like Marx and Freud and Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade is a durable industry for scholars, so it’s no surprise that in France, in particular, the 200th anniversary of his death generates reflection on his unique stature, as evidenced by a host of events and publications. Together with his strong fit to the present proliferation of crises and conflagrations afflicting fabrics of society and bodies politic the world over, republication of his collected works in the Pléiade edition (1990-1998) has ramped up interest. Dissection of his life and times continues with new biographies while his thought has occasioned reissues of essential older critiques together with a profusion of new ones, not to mention slender novels and oversize facsimiles. The museum catalogue for the show is an impressive display of the entire intellectual and visual compilation, authored by its guest curator, Annie Le Brun. A second exhibit, which features the 39-foot-long scroll on which Sade recorded, in microscopic handwriting, while imprisoned in the Bastille, 120 Days of Sodom, is on view at the nearby Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits. The seventh arrondissement, until late January, has gone Sade.
The vast assemblage at Orsay does not aim to represent Sade’s direct imprint so much as to examine the profound stirrings in the plastic arts which his work brought to bear on long-sequestered desires, generating images in which body and mind interact in response to and beyond the reach of religion and political order. Sade’s themes, expressed by his characters’ extreme discourse—what they say, do, and inflict upon one another—provoke in readers, still today, visceral responses that owe to the social, political and psychological contents of their worlds. Those same responses by extension apply to viewers of works ranging from Ingres’s intimate erotic drawings (discovered only in the 1970s) to disaster paintings like Eruption of Vesuvius (Pierre-Jacques Volare) and a sketch from Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. The exhibit’s pointedly insolent title owes to one of the outrageous libertines who occupy the remote castle in 120 Days of Sodom. “How many times, by God” asks Curval, a murderous judge and wealthy, twisted, upright member of society, “have I not longed to be able to assail the sun, snatch it out of the universe, make a general darkness, or use that star to burn the world!”
Sade’s notoriety preceded his influence, to be sure, and it’s easy to explain. Born in 1740 to the French aristocracy as the empire stumbled toward revolution amidst the Enlightenment, Sade fought as a young officer in the Seven Years’ War (“very brave and very crazy,” wrote a superior) before taking up the life of a debauched young libertine. From 1763 his brutal and outrageous sexual excesses got him into trouble, in no small part because they were admixed with religious impiety, including blasphemies such as spitting and trampling on the cross. A series of scandals, imprisonments, and escapes culminated in his confinement without trial or sentence in 1777 at the behest of his in-laws and on orders of the French king. To that point Sade was no more than one prominent whelp among a welter of sexual overboards, his movements tracked and recorded by the royal police and system of spies—infamous, to be sure, but no more substantial than a scandal-prone rock star.
In prison, however, Sade began to create the extraordinary series of books that interweave elaborate sexual behavior, political discourse, and philosophy, all undergirded by rage and black humor, that stand as the most extreme examples of late Enlightenment thought. After release from prison in 1790, he became active in the revolution; but Citizen Sade was imprisoned again during the Terror and nearly lost his head. He came away in the aftermath to fashion something of a career as playwright, novelist, and pamphleteer, and by the end of the century his sexually explicit works such as Justine and Juliette were popular sellers in the Parisian bookstalls. It was just such works as Philosophy in the Bedroom that brought him to the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had him arrested and renewed his confinement without trial. Sade died in 1814; soon afterward, his books were formally banned; they remained so in France for more than a hundred years, even as his influence percolated and spread from about 1850; Flaubert, Baudelaire, Swinburne counted themselves among his admirers. Only after World War II did Jean-Jacques Pauvert, a young editor who died just this past September, take up the task of republishing Sade’s works, the most famous of which were put into English in the 1960s.
Attacking the Sun is guest-curated by Annie Le Brun, a sharp-witted left intellectual and social critic who has written about Sade for some forty years. She collaborated with Pauvert for a re-edition of Sade’s works in the 1970s and her Sade: A Sudden Abyss is still available in English (City Lights). The exhibit develops and illustrates a set of central ideas Le Brun has fashioned to encompass Sade’s complex thought, establish his primogeniture with respect to figures such as Nietzsche and Freud, and explain his continuing relevance. She aptly rejects the idea of Sade as promulgating a philosophy or system in favor, more nimbly, of a way of thinking. As she explains, he “puts philosophy in the bedroom instead of simply making the bedroom safe for philosophy.” Sade insists on the primacy of desire and the centrality of body to mind: “no ideas without bodies, no bodies without ideas.” That fundamental insight, immanent throughout Sade’s writings, places him in thorough opposition to ideologies of every kind, understood as systems of ideas precisely without intimate connection to physical and sentient beings. With this individuating trope, Sade was adamantly anti-metaphysical, atheist, and materialist; these precepts suffuse his writing and make him a man on a mission, inspired by the Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius, whose De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) shapes his approach to the world.
For this exhibition, Le Brun’s accomplishment is to show how Sade’s preoccupations entered the visual arts during the past four or five hundred years—several pieces date to the 15th century—yet without moving into the territory of platitudes, anachronisms, and dubious allusions. One might imagine an exhibit like this would present works that evoke Sade’s preromantic appreciation of the erotic, from Fragonard to Félicien Rops. There is some of that. But far more intriguing are works by iconic artists that powerfully contextualize Sade’s own central themes. To cite just several: strangulation and abduction according to Cézanne, Ingres’s adolescent Angélique, extravagant sculptures by Rodin, Edvard Munch’s Dans le cerveau de l’homme, and Picasso’s Rape of the Sabine Women.
Originally herself associated with French surrealism, Le Brun does not neglect either its major artists or their precursors. Key anchors include André Masson, whose Gradiva (after the novel by Willem Jensen) is a powerfully imaginative encapsulation of sexual obsession; Man Ray, who was an avid reader of Sade; Hans Bellmer, whose imagination and personal life strongly reflected Sade’s own humanity in the face of naked oppression; pieces by Marcel Duchamp; and both collages and paintings by Max Ernst, whose Bride of the Wind, freighted with both erotic and political connotations, concludes the exhibit. But Le Brun accords equal attention to such unusual artists as the symbolist Alfred Kubin and, from the time of the French Revolution, arresting works by the architect and erotic draughtsman Jean-Jacques Lequeu. One room in the exhibit has a focus on perversion—here are Aubrey Beardsley and Félicien Rops, among others, including some ephemera and manuscripts. But the exhibit is defined by desire writ large, not by compulsion.
In the end, beyond Sade’s breadth of vision, it is his commitment to human freedom that is on display in Attacking the Sun. With Sade, “we find ourselves in the face of untrammeled thought that admits nothing whatever of the religious, ideological, and moral preconceptions that make us all voluntary prisoners,” Le Brun emphasized in a recent interview. “For Sade’s atheism attacks not only religion but everything that nourishes in mankind all forms of servitude and acceptance.”
Some will contest whether Sade, two hundred years dead, belongs with the company he keeps at the Musée d’Orsay. I won’t be one of them. Recently, my wife and I completed translation of Aline and Valcour, the long and complex novel he wrote while imprisoned in the Bastille, never before put into English. As we rendered the final compelling and surprising climactic and tragic descriptions, it was impossible not to notice how the amplitude and ambition behind Sade’s intentions forced the language he used far beyond its time and place. For me, it brought to mind the 20th century critic Northrop Frye’s explanation for his powerful attachment to John Milton’s Paradise Lost—its epic quality as “the story of all things.” Not really a surprising a juxtaposition today, astride a world awash in astonishing wealth and massive poverty, with considerable parts afire, fueled by deadly religious scrap: we have, thankfully, the Marquis de Sade.