MARQUIS DE SADE
´Sade: Freedom or Evil´ is an exhibition that delves into the influence and reputation of the infamous French writer and philosopher, the Marquis de Sade, from whom the term ´sadism´ derives and it’s a journey not for the faint-hearted. The exhibition commences with the display of his sole surviving authentic portrait – a 1760 sketch capturing the 19 year-old de Sade, immortalised by Charles Amédée Philippe van Loo. This portrait is juxtaposed with Joan Fontcuberta‘s intricate collage, which is meticulously composed of 6,060 Google image search results associated with ´Sade´ and his related terms. Fontcuberta’s artwork illustrates contemporary perceptions of this enigmatic figure, who straddled the Ancien Régime and the Revolution as a provocative and pornographic presence.
Sade exemplifies the kind of thought provoking and inquisitive content that characterises ´Freedom or Evil.´ Throughout much of history (even during his own lifetime), the Marquis de Sade was often portrayed as a prolific pornographer, a sensationalist caricature, or a deeply disturbed individual. It is precisely this characterisation that curators Antonio Monegal and Alyce Mahon are determined to confront and challenge.
Born in 1740 into the nobility of Paris, the Marquis de Sade endured nearly three decades of imprisonment, primarily as a means to discourage and suppress his explicit and morbid fascinations and writings. One particular instance of his incarceration, came about when he dared to send his novel, ´Juliette,´ a work that explores the full spectrum of Sade’s dark themes – including everything from murder, incest, and cannibalism, to Napoleon, in an attempt to provoke persecution.
De Sade’s capacity to delve into the depths of depravity knew no bounds. His most renowned creation, ´120 Days of Sodom,´ though considered one of his less polished works, due to its unfinished nature, remains a testament to his relentless exploration of the darkest facets of human nature. In this disturbing opus, a horrifying tableau emerges: a woman subjected to a gruesome violation that culminates in her agonising demise atop a bed of nails. Shockingly, this is just one of the many macabre scenes within its pages. This notorious manuscript, etched on a colossal 12-meter scroll, managed to escape the confines of the Bastille, before finding its way into the tumultuous and feverish pre-revolutionary atmosphere of France. In 2021, it resurfaced again in the public eye, as the French state acquired this artifact of infamy for a stupefy sum of €4.55 million.
De Sade’s literary works weren’t solely about gratuitous indulgence in sexuality; rather, they served as a profound exploration of a broader philosophical concept. Within his writings, he illustrated that the fulfillment of desire, whether of an erotic nature or not, symbolised the pinnacle of human freedom. De Sade embodied both the libertine (advocating for unbridled self-expression) and the libertarian (challenging established institutions with biting critiques and clever satires). He controversially unveiled the hypocrisies embedded in church, state, class, law, and family structures. In the enduring discourse surrounding freedom and the ¨unencumbered expression of one’s beliefs,¨ Sade’s legacy transcends the confines of history to remain a poignant reflection of contemporary issues. ´Sade: Freedom or Evil´ is not merely a historical exhibition; it evolves into a pertinent commentary on the ongoing questions of liberty and free expression in our modern, media saturated world.
“Contact Without Consent Is Violence.” – PLEA
The opening section of the exhibition delves into the dissemination and initial showcasing of De Sade’s literary oeuvre. Undoubtedly, the allure of sex has a timeless appeal, and De Sade’s clandestine writings were no exception to this phenomenon. Within this part of the exhibit, visitors will encounter pristine first editions and intricate engravings extracted from a pirated second edition of ´Justine,´ a narrative intimately entwined with its literal counterpart, ´Juliette.´ A highlight within this collection is a remarkable illustration by Leonor Fini, originating from a 1944 edition of ´Juliette.´ In this captivating gouache artwork, a tempestuous whirlwind of female dominance takes centre stage, embodied in the sculpted forms of two women brandishing whips with remarkable finesse, expertly captured through finely detailed brushwork and dynamic kinesis.
The Surrealists, including artists like Leonor Fini, held a deep reverence for De Sade and played a pivotal role in revitalising his literary legacy. They emerged as his rightful successors, sharing a commitment to liberating the unconscious and embracing a hedonistic approach to aesthetics. Within the exhibition, you’ll encounter three captivating works by Salvador Dalí – one of which is a voluptuous portrait of the universally adored erotic figure, Gradiva. Additionally, Man Ray‘s mischievous 1933 tribute to De Sade is on display – an artwork that humorously features a pair of male buttocks encircled by an inverted cross.
The exhibition takes a thought provoking dive into De Sade’s enduring relevance within the realms of queerness and kink, during the latter half of the 20th century. Of particular note is the flourishing fetish culture of the 1970´s, where iconic venues like the gay BDSM club Mineshaft became integral fixtures of the New York underground club scene. Within this context, the exhibition proudly showcases three evocative photographs from Susan Meiselas‘ 1995 series, ´Pandora’s Box.´ This series represents her return to the dominatrix studio she initially documented two decades earlier. Meiselas’ lens offers a compelling glimpse into the evolution and persistence of the erotic and subversive subcultures that have drawn inspiration from De Sade’s radical ideas and continue to challenge societal norms.
The exhibition boldly features Robert Mapplethorpe‘s notorious ´X Portfolio´ from 1978, a collection that unapologetically explores explicit themes, including fisting. When this portfolio was displayed back in 1989, it ignited a firestorm of public outrage – sparking a vigorous debate of art funding in the United States. Remarkably, 35 years after publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert faced legal challenges for republishing De Sade’s texts, an obscenity trial was thrust into the spotlight. Mapplethorpe’s artistic vision was deeply influenced by Pierre Molinier, a correspondent of André Breton, and the exhibition proudly showcases two of Molinier’s striking black and white self-portraits. In these provocative images, Molinier adorns himself in a corset, stockings, suspenders, and high heels, complemented by a fully made-up face as he gazes confidently into the camera. The inclusion of such overtly queer and sexually unapologetic artwork serves as a heartening reminder, particularly at a time when LGBTQ+ rights face challenges worldwide. These works continue to stand as a powerful expressions of artistic freedom and sexual diversity, challenging societal norms and advocating for the unapologetic celebration of human sexuality.
De Sade’s legacy is a complex one, often fraught with accusations of misogyny. However, it’s important to recognise that his work has also received praise and analysis from prominent thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir. De Sade’s writings encompass a broad spectrum of human sexuality and challenge established norms. While some of his writings may depict controversial and disturbing scenarios, they also frequently explore themes of sexual autonomy for women and ¨a rejection of hetero-patriarchal conventions.¨ In ´Juliette,´ for instance, he presents a powerful counter narrative to the prevailing archetype of the submissive woman – whether in reality or mythology. Through his characters and narratives, he delves into the complexities of power dynamics, consent, and the intersections of desire and agency. In this light, De Sade’s work can be seen as a reflection of his exploration of human nature and societal norms, often pushing the boundaries to provoke thought and discussion about the multifaceted aspects of sexuality, gender, power, consent and boundaries.
In Angela Carter‘s ´The Sadeian Woman,´ she proposed the notion that the Marquis de Sade could be characterised as a ´moral pornographer.´ Carter’s perspective did not intend to romanticise Juliette as some sort of sexually empowered figure; rather, she acknowledged that Juliette was implicated in the same gruesome acts as the male characters. However, Carter argued that by depicting Juliette as equally depraved, de Sade granted her an elevated status. It’s worth noting that while this summary provides an overview of Carter’s ideas, there is no direct excerpt from her treatise included here. Instead, this text features intriguing hypothetical dialogues where various critics and philosophers engage in discussions with figures like Michel Foucault, among others (these dialogues are available for viewing online.) Additionally, the text contains excerpts from Pauline Réage‘s ´Histoire d’O´(1954), an erotic novel which could well have garnished approval from the Marquis de Sade himself.
“Yes, I am a libertine, I admit it: I have imagined everything of that kind which can be imagined, but I certainly have not done all that I have imagined, and I certainly never shall. I am a libertine, but I am neither a criminal nor a murderer.” – Marquis De Sade
The Domestic Data Streamers‘ commissioned soundscape, ´The Rhythm of Violence,´ stands out as the most emotionally evocative installation addressing the issue of violence against women. In a dimly lit room, time takes on a distorted quality: each passing minute symbolises a year, while the synchronised ticking of a series of metronomes, each representing a different country, signifies the tragic loss of a woman’s life at the hands of her partner or ex-partner. One might initially fear it could come across as gimmicky, akin to the memorable Make Poverty History advertisement featuring Brad Pitt snapping his fingers. However, ´The Rhythm of Violence´ transcends such concerns. Concurrently, Laia Abril‘s powerful photographs from her ´On Rape´ series expose the deeply ingrained abuses suffered by women within the very institutions that Marquis de Sade so fervently condemned.
The question of whether De Sade was inherently evil serves as a central theme for this exhibition, often approached with a remarkably provocative perspective. An example of this is a manga comic titled ´Shin Gendai Ryoukiden,´ along with an examination of its primary source material: the harrowing four-month-long torture of a 17-year-old student in Japan. The real life details of this case leave little room to dismiss the philosopher Michel Onfray’s assertion that it is ´intellectually bizarre to make Sade a hero.´ Notably, ´Freedom or Evil´ does not provide space for Onfray’s viewpoint or those who share similar sentiments. Furthermore, it would have been intriguing to delve into a psychiatrist’s analysis of De Sade’s psyche, as well as to explore the complex relationship between prisons and psychiatric institutions more broadly, given De Sade’s confinement to such an institution towards the end of his life.
The paradox of humanity’s enduring fascination with evil, despite our instinctive aversion to it, remains a central theme in the exhibition. This thought provoking showcase compellingly presents a trove of evidence that underscores our intrinsic attraction to the dark and macabre – a complex cycle in which wrongdoers and spectators feed off each other’s impulses. Among the most riveting exhibits, Mexican artist Teresa Margolles‘s ´PM (2012)´ stands out prominently. This formidable installation commands an entire wall, adorned with 313 front pages, extracted from a tabloid published in Ciudad Juárez, a border town notorious for its entanglement with drug-related crime and gang violence. It delivers a visceral and unrelenting portrayal of brutality, reminiscent of the most intense scenes in horror cinema. This stark compilation of headlines serves as a haunting reminder of the pervasive cruelty that permeates our society and the unsettling fascination that the mainstream audience harbors for these gruesome details. This fascination, in many ways, mirrors the very infatuation with moral depravity that led to the condemnation of figures like the Marquis de Sade.
The exhibition also confronts violence beyond the confines of sexual and domestic contexts, by condemning the heinous deeds and far-reaching consequences of colonialism. In a poignant example, a film by Kara Walker titled ‘The Creation of the African-America’ (2005) powerfully asserts the inextricable link between American identity and the enduring, savage aftermath of slavery.
Furthermore, the Argentine artist and activist Marcelo Brodsky employs a striking technique, overlaying stark archival photographs of the victims of genocide with vibrant, connecting watercolours and unabashed phrases, such as “We abused you,” delivered in the unapologetic language of colonisers. This thought-provoking juxtaposition challenges viewers to grapple with the complex legacy of colonialism and question whether any semblance of remorse really does exist within its historical narrative. The exhibition also includes space for the infamous photograph of American soldier Lynndie England, engaged in the degrading treatment of prisoners at French Culture. Even a decade later, this image retains its power to shock and provoke deep reflection. ‘Freedom or Evil’ is not the only recent production to explore the enduring fascination with the Marquis de Sade. Over the past couple of decades, there have been numerous exhibitions, including one at the Musée d’Orsay, and a plethora of books, with Joel Warner‘s ‘The Curse of the Marquis de Sade‘ being the most recent addition. Interestingly, De Sade has even found a place as a character in the popular Assassin’s Creed video game, although it’s unlikely that we’ll see his likeness adorning keyrings like Salvador Dali anytime soon.
It goes without saying that this retrospective may not resonate with everyone, particularly those who are less inclined to engage with artistic works featuring the abuse of children or the mutilation of pregnant women – even if, as they say, life does indeed imitate art….
Article: Charles Daniel McDonald
Photography: CCCB / Estate Of Marquis De Sade