Edgar Degas “Scène de guerre au Moyen-âge” (1865), 83.5 x 148.5 cm Musée d’Orsay, Paris (image © RMN-Grand Palais, Musée d’Orsay / Gérard Blot)

Edgar Degas “Scène de guerre au Moyen-âge” (1865), 83.5 x 148.5 cm Musée d’Orsay, Paris (image © RMN-Grand Palais, Musée d’Orsay / Gérard Blot)

PARIS — Georges Bataille, in The Accursed Share, said that if the Marquis de Sade had not existed, he would have had to been invented. But probably one of the biggest badasses of all time did exist. And, as if to prove it, on the bicentenary of the death of the “divine marquis” (Donatien Alphonse de Sade) the Musée d’Orsay has put together a sex sells blockbuster exhibition: Sade: Attacking the Sun

Edward Burne-Jones, “La roue de la Fortune” (1883), oil on canvas, 200 x 100 cm (© RMN-Grand Palais, Musée d’Orsay / Gérard Blot)

Given the exhibition’s spew of explicit sexual and violent images, one may thank the French again for their social-sexual candor and maturity, as this is a show I imagine might be impossible to mount (pun intended) in the repressive cultural/political climate of the United States — as well as many other countries in the world. It is a bit subversive, titillating, and instructional in its complex beatitudes, with brilliant pieces of visual metamorphosis by Ingres, Goya, Delacroix, Gericault, Cézanne, Rops, Duchamp, Man Ray, Bellmer, and Rodin, amongst many others. But at the same time, I must point out its shortcomings, which are grave for the art audience for whom I ostensibly am writing.

According to Annie Le Brun (Sade specialist and guest curator), Attacking the Sun demonstrates the sublime revolution of representation that Sade began fueling with his texts of extreme, bizarre, and monstrous principles of excess. She cites Sade’s influence on Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Huysmans, Swinburne, Mirbeau, Breton, and Bataille. I would also add Michel Foucault, Denis Hollier, Marcel Hénaff, David Allison, David Martyn, Deepak Narang Sawhney, Alphonso Lingis, and Béatrice Didier to that list.

So the point of the show is to celebrate a revolutionized history of a literature and art that radically challenges issues of religious presupposition, limits, proportion, beauty, ugliness, and body image. And despite the nasty sexual-politics of predatory power in de Sade, his influence upon the Dada and Surrealist art movements at the beginning of the twentieth century is something to celebrate.

Charles-Francois Jeandel, “Deux femmes nues attachees, allongees sur le cote” (between 1890 and 1900) (image © Musee d’Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt)

But the exhibition showboats its presumptions of sexual scandal. It caresses and reassures the intended mass audience by opening the exhibition with movie clips: Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or (1930), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò ou les 120 journées de Sodome (1975), Michael Powell’s Le Voyeur (1960), Mario Bava’s Le Corps et le fouet (1963), and Nagisa Oshima’s L’Empire des sens (1976). Then, all the walls are painted a deep purple and the lighting is very dim, as in a sex club.

Félicien Rops “L’Amante du Christ” (1888), Musée d’Orsay, Paris (image © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Madeleine Coursaget)

Some of the galleries are terribly overhung, with too many small pieces fighting it out. Worse, the mysterious and weird subjectivity of art, like Edgar Degas’s “Scène de guerre au Moyen-âge” (1865), is over-determined here, turned pedantic by the announcing room themes that are augmented with de Sade’s text fragments. It at times flops into one of those terrible keyword shows that remind me of a Google image search.

Perhaps unavoidably, the show is very male oriented and very much focused on male power, hence often reeking of macho bullshit. As such, it is a bumpy ride in the Duchampian “Bachelor Machine,” fueled by spurts of autoerotic energy. Still the Divine Marquis’s questioning of issues of limits, proportion, excess, notions of beauty, ugliness, the sublime, and body image is appropriately honored here with specific intriguing pieces, like Félicien Rops’s “L’Amante du Christ” (1888) and Paul Cézanne’s “La Femme étranglée” (1876).

Paul Cézanne “La Femme étranglée” (1876), oil on canvas, 31.2 x 24.7 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (© Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt)

Before or after seeing Attacking the Sun, I suggest a drop in on a show hidden around the corner from it. It is of (and on) a manuscript for a school of debauchery, de Sade’s The Hundred Twenty Days of Sodom at L’ Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits. The book on display is the one de Sade wrote secretly on a 12 meters long roll of thin paper (11.5 cm wide) in 1785 while imprisoned in the Bastille. He hid it in the wall of his cell. On the night of July 3, 1789, de Sade, after haranging the crowd from his cell, was transferred to the hospital of Charenton, leaving behind his manuscript. When the Bastille was stormed and looted on July 14, during the height of the French Revolution, de Sade believed the work was lost forever and later wrote that he “wept tears of blood” over its loss. But, unknown to him, the roll was recovered from the destruction of the Bastille and sold to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans.

It, perhaps justly, resembles a roll of toilet paper. The text is achingly beautiful, written in minuscule.

Sade Manuscrit Les 120 journées de Sodome (image courtesy L’ Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits, Paris)

This small, serious exhibition of a national treasure actually aesthetically stirred me a bit more than Attacking the Sun, as not only was the de Sade manuscript intimate and beautiful, thus compelling, so were the other surrounding hand written letters, drawings, manuscripts, and rare books on libertinism that surround it: things by Crebillon Choderlos de Laclos, Mirabeau, Casanova, the Chevalier d’Eon, Musset, Maupassant, Bellmer, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Pierre Louys, Joe Bousquet, Boris Vian, and Pauline Reage.

Seen in tandem, these two provocative shows express something valuable: a spirit of forlorn revolt that plays constructively (for art) with fantasies of transgression and emancipation.

Sade Manuscrit Les 120 journées de Sodome (image courtesy L’ Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits, Paris)

Sade: Attacking the Sun continues at the Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 7e, Paris) until January 25, and Manuscript of The Hundred Twenty Days of Sodom continues at L’ Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits (21 Rue de l’Université, 7e, Paris) until January 18.

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Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion...