Our woman in Paris delves into the Musée d’Orsay’s exploration of the dark, sexual underworld of one of the West’s most perverted thinkers – and comes out disappointed, unsatisfied, and bored.
‘Sex Sells’ – that’s what we’re always told, and that’s clearly something that the Musée d’Orsay are eagerly aware of. The provocative promotional video for their most scandalous exhibition to date was briefly removed from YouTube before quickly being branded with a restricted rating. The video tantalises and titillates, and seems to promise an exciting new direction for the French cultural giant. However, in reality, the exhibition falls disappointingly flat.
Somehow, the Musée d’Orsay has achieved the impossible; they have managed to make sex dull. An exhibition based around the man who gives us the word Sadism, a man who spent most of his life in prison for exercising his own philosophy (and the other part of it putting communion wafers in rude parts of prostitutes) should be anything but boring, but the whole thing has the air of still being in the brainstorming stages. Worse than that, it is in fact very reminiscent of somebody bullshitting an essay. Quotes adorn the walls, seemingly tying the themes together, but more giving the impression that they have been taken out of context, and are being exploited to link the unconnected. The exhibition starts off well and good, making interesting points about the rediscovery of Sade in the 19th century, and the impact his writing and philosophy had on artists of the time, but then comes the feeling that whoever is writing this ‘essay’ hasn’t actually finished their reading and, now having run out of things to say, is pulling together bits and pieces of everything that they think might be relevant. The exhibition promises to explore the significance of the Marquis de Sade on Western Art and Thinking from the 19th Century onwards, but instead gets distracted and gives us an unending tour of bric-a-brac that may or may not have something to do, maybe, with sex, and or, violence.
The problem with this exhibition is that the Musée d’Orsay has taken a plunge and launched itself far out of its depth. Recently, the gallery has been pushing boundaries; but only really its own. The museum is most famous for its Impressionist collection, which whilst radical at the time and still fiercely important work, now is widely associated with biscuit tins. The demographic that the museum most relies on tends towards the older generation of tourists. In choosing Sade as subject matter, the Orsay have given themselves an almost impossible challenge; dealing with one of the most troubling, influential, brilliant, scandalous, and disturbing figures of Western culture, without causing too much distress to an unsuspecting public. It is for this reason that the exhibition loses its thread and becomes a slideshow of images vaguely related to either violence, or to sex, or to nudity, or to war, or to mental conditions etc. ad infinitum. In entering the ‘restricted’ room of the exhibition, one would expect to find truly horrific artefacts that may be hard to look at, but are crucial to an argument; instead, we find a collection of historic pornography and a statue of literary Great Balzac wielding a massive erection – none of it particularly relevant to anything else. And this is the problem; this is an exhibition about Sade, where sex is treated as restricted!
More troubling is what they have decided to leave out altogether. As is evident, Sade was not a particularly nice person, and his view of Liberty doesn’t give much thought to the sexuality or desires of any other party. It was always to be expected that women would have a particularly rough ride in Sade’s utopia – if you pardon the disturbing pun. But this exhibition is supposedly exploring the influence of Sade on Western art from the 19th Century onwards. I refuse to believe that one artwork is all that there is to show for women’s engagement with the legacy of Sade in Western art, but that is all we are shown. Also disturbing was the distinct lack of any relationship other than a male Sadist and a woman (not necessarily a Masochist). Here, Le Brun and the Musée D’Orsay have done their audience a real disservice, and they have also done a huge disservice to the multitude of artists whose work would have benefitted the (entirely lacking) narrative of the exhibition.
‘Attacking the Sun’ is the tagline for this exhibition. Plastered across Paris on all promotional posters, it is a line taken from Sade himself, and gives the passer-by a glimpse of the extent to which Sade himself defied and despised of established mores. But unfortunately for everyone involved, the Orsay cannot bring itself to rock the proverbial boat. One artist’s work that I was extremely surprised not to see was that of seminal American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Of all of the many, many artists exhibited, Mapplethorpe would have been the most worthy of carrying Sade’s cultural weight. Themes of Violence, Destruction, Strength, Sexuality, Social exclusion, exposing hypocrisy, Defiance against society, Catholic Guilt &etc. are central to his work. But these works were missing, and the problem is that in wanting to explore Sade, the Orsay has bitten off more than it can chew. The Orsay is most certainly not ready to hang a self-portrait of the artist shoving a whip up his own backside, and until they are, they are not nearly ready to claim to exhibit the cultural legacy of the Marquis de Sade.
Sade: ‘Attaquer Le Soleil’ is showing at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris until the 25th January