The Sade: Attaquer le Soleil Exhibition at Le Musee D'Orsay, Paris

                             Eugene Delacroix, Medee Furieuse, 1838

                             Eugene Delacroix, Medee Furieuse, 1838

14 October – 25 January

“In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice.” 

 Sex sells, so I would imagine that the title of this piece might draw a few more readers than usual. You might think it a little odd to go to an exhibition focusing on an author’s oeuvre at one of Paris’s most famous art museums Le Musee D’Orsay. However, for an exhibition characterized by the quotation, “Ferocity is always the means or complement of lust,” we had to indulge our curiosity. Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814) was known as the Marquis de Sade, the sexual deviant who dabbled in revolutionary politics, philosophy, literature and seducing the aristocracy. Sade is perhaps France’s most revered provocateur, credited with inspiring a plethora of artists for years after his death. He believed that “every person has their own obsession, we should never criticise or be surprised by any of them,” though his was a little more imposing than your average taste for Merlot or dark chocolate. (Les Cent Vingt Journees de Sodome, 1785) You may have heard the word 'sadism' before, which was affectionately coined in remembrance of his kaleidoscopic career. He wrote novels, plays, dialogues, short stories and speeches, which often appeared anonymously to protect him from their highly controversial content.

 There is no doubt that Fifty Shades of Grey is put to shame by the broad spectrum of erotic works that he produced between his various prison sentences and 32 years in an asylum. The list  reads rather like an inter-railing itinerary as he progressed through 11 years in Paris (10 of which were spent in the Bastille), a month in the Conciergie, two years in a fortress, a year in Madelonettes, three years in Bicetre, a year in Saint Pelagie and 13 years in the Charenton Asylum. He was unphased by morality or the law and so defiantly continued with his work from within his incarceration. Clearly the prison guards were as curious as his audience or I would assume that his ink supplies would have been swept away - that is assuming that his musings weren’t inscribed in blood of course.

His erotic works were not just gentle portrayals of lost love, natural aphrodisiacs and forbidden sexual encounters, but rather an intense philosophical analysis of how our sexual fantasies relate to violence, criminality, religion and of course pornography. As a result of the poignancy of the subject matter, Sade’s work had a powerful influence on 19th century sensibility in general. His sensual revolution influenced revered authors like Flaubert, Swinbourne, and Baudelaire who were intrigued by his consideration of desire’s transformative power.

 When you enter the exhibition you are confronted with films, which expose the deep horror of human cruelty, “ferocity like pain is just one mode of the soul, totally independent of us.” (La Nouvelle Justine, 1797) These films are projected onto ethereal, suspended screens, which preserve the sadistic veneer of Sade’s work. They attempt to illustrate how the unrepresentable can be filmed and how a philosophy based on the infinite power of the imagination can be reduced to images. Sade encouraged the representation of what cannot be said in his works, which reflect this theory that, “What you offer me is merely beautiful, what I invent is sublime.” (L’histoire de Justine, 1797)

Goya, Gericault and Delacroix all agreed with his philosophies as is illustrated by the presence works like Delacroix’s, Medee Furieuse, 1838. This composition is particularly evocative as it depicts a bejewelled mother grappling to protect her children as she prepares to defend them with a knife. Its composition is incredibly similar to Nicolas Andre Monsiau’s Le Lion de Florence, 1801, in which a mother’s anguish at the loss of a child is immeasurably captivating. Both have exposed breasts and embody incredible beauty in their moments of plight, which explains Sade’s conviction that, "Cruelty and voluptuousness are identical sensations like extreme heat and extreme cold." The role of the strong woman is prevalent throughout the exhibition in other works like Valentin de Boulogne’s Judith, 1625, which illustrates a woman in cobalt blue holding the impaled head of her rapist. Despite the sympathy we feel for a wronged woman, both works lead us to question the assertion, “a crime is a crime and therefore challenges the spiritual, moral, and political foundations of social structure as well as its aesthetic order.”

 Sade also discussed the close relation of sexual violence, abduction and lust, which is embodied in the series of ‘L’Enlevement’ works, which capture women in the first moments of their kidnapping. Reminiscent of Picasso’s provocative work Guernica - which captured the Spanish Civil War - is L’Enlevement des Sabines, 1962 with a similar grisaille palette and outstretched arms. The semi-erotic double nude L’Enlevement, 1867 by Paul Cezanne as well as Giambattista Piazetta’s L’Enlevement d’Helena, 1718 both allude to Stockholm syndrome and the moral dilemma of falling in love with one’s captor. In Johann Heinrich Fussli’s painting of Celadon and Amelia he tells the story of the lovers being overwhelmed by a storm, which frightens Amelia who Celadon comforts with the words, “tis safety to be near thee, sure, and thus to clasp perfection.” She after she is killed by lightning and this moment perfectly captures Sade’s belief that “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most beautiful topic in the world.” I don’t think any romantic could doubt that there is truth in this statement, but we only have to look to Lana Del Rey’s recent glamorization of dying young, to see the extraordinary backlash that such a belief can lead to.

 The ambience in the exhibition space perfectly complemented the intensity of the subject matter. The audience are free to wander through a maze of low-lit rooms, all painted in a melancholy grisaille palette. Apart from the occasional gasp or muffled shriek, this is one of the first exhibitions - like Egon Schiele's - I have been to that was almost perfectly quiet. It is this silence, which creates a somewhat uneasy atmosphere and makes the echo of heartbeats playing on a loop all the more evocative. As with Egon Schiele’s retrospective at the Courtauld, London, the audience seemed to have been silenced by the conflicting depravity and sensuality of the works before them.

What was so intriguing about Sade was his smooth corruption of admired French artists like Rodin who made blood the colour of love in his series of illustrations like Le Jardin des Supplices (torture garden), which all had titles that entwined pleasure and pain. I also stumbled upon the work of Gustav Moreau whose labyrinth of a home in Montmartre is one of my favourite cultural destinations in Paris. His kaleidoscopic piece Jupiter and Semele, 1890 has a somewhat dizzying effect on the mind. Just before is a darkened room, which exposes wax as a powerful medium for metamorphosis. As the exhibition draws to a close, the temperament is somewhat enlivened with obscene photographs and violent painterly impressions of a variety of sexual contortions and genitalia.

Assemblage de 26 Photographies de Sexes Feminins, 1880 seemed to prove alarming to even the freest of spirits. Though, only in France would the crowd be brave enough to clamber over each other in conspicuous attempts at capturing the eroticism on their iPhones. By the same regard, another interesting observation was the defiance of the many parents who walked their neat little darlings around every single painting, no matter the violence or vulgarity of its content. Perhaps an early exposure to eroticism in art is the secret to French libidos? 


Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of