June 15, 2021
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That Which Cannot Be Shown

200 years after his death, the Marquis de Sade continues to shock, fascinate, titillate, but also to have a deep and enduring influence on Art and artists.

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That Which Cannot Be Shown
That Which Cannot Be Shown

The life and works of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known by his title, Marquis de Sade (1740-1817) have fascinated, titillated, excited, thrilled, horrified and repulsed millions of readers. His influence over writers and artists of the 19th and 20th centuries has also been colossal.

Now, 200 years after his death, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris has put together an exhibition entitled Attacking the Sun that tries to examine the far-reaching influence this unrepentant libertine had on Art and the work of artists and writers in the centuries that followed. Eugene Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Francis Bacon, Goya, Ingres and Pablo Picasso, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire were all fascinated by the force of his writing, his mad unbridled imagination, his uncompromising attitude to life, the debauchery of his existence. 

Some of the works in the exhibition feature tortured, headless bodies, gory sculptures and paintings, including Picasso’s The Rape of the Sabines (with horses trampling to death a woman and child), Degas’ Scene of War in the Middle Ages, Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus or Paul Cezanne’s Portrait of a Strangled Woman. 

The museum’s website warns that "The violent nature of some of the works and documents may shock some visitors" and its 52-second video that shows “the ferocity of desire” with naked, writhing bodies has been taken off or restricted by several sites.

Annie Le Brun, the curator of the exhibition and one of the world’s leading experts on the life and writings of the Marquis de Sade told reporters at the exhibition’s opening last week: “The connection Sade found between desire and ferocity, which in his eyes, is inherent in man, completely haunts Art." She said the exhibition looked at the “extent to which Sade, steeped in rebellion, encouraged the representation of what cannot be said in Art.”

Her co-curator Laurent des Cars said Sade set the artistic world a new challenge, “raising the issue of what defines representation by establishing its connection with both the freedom to say everything and individual freedom," Sade may not have been the inventor of sadism (although he was one of its most famous adepts) or violence in sexuality. He did however make it "one of the abiding themes in a process of dramatising the erotic", des Cars said. 

Sade’s most famous work, entitled The 120 days of Sodom recounts the sexual orgies of four libertine French noblemen. It is a tale of horror that details the rape, torture, sodomy and murder of their mostly teenage victims. Written in 1785, when the French Revolution was coming to a boil and the storming of the Bastille, where he was then imprisoned just another four years away, the original manuscript written on a continuous, 12-metre-long scroll, was exhibited in Paris’ Museum of Manuscripts in April this year. Sade, who had hidden it in the cracks of his prison cell, described it as the “most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began". 

But Sade was also a political and social thinker, an anti-clerical atheist, writing plays (several accepted and performed by the prestigious Comedie Francaise) and his letters reveal him to be kind and humane. He was not a mere pornographer depicting violent sexual antics. His work is of a high intellectual calibre, displaying astounding literary power, erudition, culture and intelligence. 

Accused of violent perversions and “unnatural” acts, Sade was on the run from the law for most of his adult life. He used his status as a nobleman and his wife’s considerable fortune to escape time and time again, but ended his days in a madhouse in Charenton on the orders of Napoleon. 

The noted historian of psychoanalysis, Elisabeth Roudinesco examines Sade’s life in her book entitled The Dark Side of Ourselves: A History of Perverts. In an exclusive interview with Outlook she said: “Sade is unique in the world of perversion. Of course he continues to fascinate and titillate because he evokes the dark forces in us that we constantly suppress. He is not a fascist, as has been suggested nor is he a pornographer but a man who gave unbridled rein to the dark side that exists in us all. This is a man who spent over 30 years of his life in prison, not because he was a killer but because they did not know what to do with him. He died in a madhouse. He was a libertine and his writings must be seen separately from his life, not confused with it. 

“An atheist who revered individual freedom, he belonged to the Enlightenment, but to what I call the Dark or Obscure Enlightenment. Where does perversion begin and who are the perverts? What then should we do with writers like Sade, Mishima, Pasolini, Hitchcock and scores of others who produced works of extreme refinement? What would we do if we were unable to evacuate our own dark desires through those who commit unspeakable acts? Whether perverts are sublime when they turn to Art or mystic creation or abject when they give in to their murderous compulsions, they remain a part of us; of our humanity because they flaunt that which we all try to hide: our own negativity, the dark side of ourselves.”


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