How’s it hanging Sade? Orgies and S&M at the Musée d’Orsay

Even the most blasé Parisian would have to leave this major exhibition incensed by the Marquis de Sade’s savage sexual politics, which penetrated the arts from Goya to Picasso.

 

sade_attaquer-le-soleil_musee-orsay

This article was written for and appears in Atlas Obscura.

Encouraged by the turnout at last year’s blockbuster collection of male nudes, Masculine, the Musée d’Orsay has whipped up a guaranteed succès de scandale with its bicentenary tribute to the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). The scandal set in before anyone had a chance to see what’s hanging on the walls, thanks to a racy publicity video on YouTube that many have decried as unbefitting Paris’ most revered masterpiece-repository after the Louvre. In the clip, dozens of naked bodies writhe together to spell out the name Sade, the frequently imprisoned writer, divine debaucher and one of the dodgiest Frenchman who ever lived, who gave us The 120 Days of Sodom and the term ‘sadism’.

This provocative exhibition traces the impact of Sade’s banned writings on more than two centuries of art and literature. Although rarely so openly acknowledged for sparking a revolution in 19th-century thought, he liberated perceptions and portrayals of our bodies, sexuality, desire, violence and base human instinct.

Powerful stuff, even if most people will just come to the Orsay to point at the naughty bits. I went along with a young French couple and their three-month-old son. Papa didn’t want baby’s first exhibition to be a corrupting force, so he pushed the pram back to the safety of the Impressionists’ wing. I’d advise squeamish and prudish visitors to follow suit.

The Marquis himself is just a starting point in this wide-ranging exhibition curated by Sade specialist Annie le Brun. The potency of his words jumps out as us from the walls where some of the juiciest quotations have been scrawled, along with snippets by other French 19th-century authors who seized on the same ideas. There are rare illustrations from banned editions, by André Masson among others, and an astonishing surrealist caricature of Sade by Man Ray. That Paris-dwelling American artist is beloved for his brand of iconic eroticism in black-and-white prints, but certainly less familiar is his explicit fetish photography. This side of Man Ray is exposed in stark portraits – a naked female model bound in leather straps and dog collar, prostrate on the ground under the inescapable gaze of the lens (Nu attaché, 1930) – and in a series of six vignettes posing two wooden articulated artist’s mannequins in flagrante (innocently titled Mr and Mrs Woodman, 1927). This last somewhat less flexible than what you’ll find in the Kamasutra exhibition running concurrently at the Pinacothèque. More on that one soon, obviously.

All a bit tame so far, really. What, no viscera? Our good Marquis mused long and languorously over pain, cruelty and ferocity as by-products or even complementary states of carnal passion, exhorting us to strip away corporeal limitations as a snake sheds its skin. To inflict pain as much as to endure it, however, one must first understand the body. To that end, a room of the exhibition is given over to 18th-century specimens of the hyper-detailed wax anatomical figures that fascinated Sade, including some particularly unsettling examples by Honoré Fragonard. Jacques-Fabien Gautier-D’Agoty’s 1754 model dominates the space: a pregnant woman, cut open and splayed out, entrails and foetus ready for inspection. Must have missed that one at Madame Tussaud’s. Rather tongue-in-cheek on the wall (not literally, I should point out), as Balzac quipped in 1829: “A man shouldn’t get married without having dissected at least one woman and studied her anatomy.” Meanwhile, a well-chosen Baudelaire observation likens the act of lovemaking to torture or surgery.

Sade’s ‘no pain, no gain’ policy finds expression in images and objects that demand our unflinching voyeurism, and even compliance. One photograph circa 1900 depicts a young woman, legs bound to a chair, receiving from her matronly captor a brutal nipple-twist with metal pincers. Goya’s most sickening portrayals of so-called inhumane torture, rape and cannibalism get a look-in, as do the usual suspects when it comes to tales of sexual violence: the rape of the Sabine women (Picasso), Salome (Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley), Judith slaying Holofernes.

Everywhere there are reminders of man’s bestial nature, from Picasso’s rarely seen doodles of a reclining nude pleasured by a cunnilingus-trained fish; Alfred Kubin’s dark, psychosexual images of naked women devoured by giant monkeys, tigers and boas or undoubtedly the most loveable exhibit: Jean Benoît’s 1965 bondage sculpture of the sexually depraved, bloodthirsty bulldog from Isidore Ducasse Lautréamont’s 1869 prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror: decked out in leather, covered in broken-glass spikes and equipped with a life-size human penis for a surprising take on ‘doggy style’.

Bouledogue

Jean Benoît, Le Bouledogue de Maldoror, 1965, Collection Pinault.

Tackling religion is a must, since Sade’s stance on the Church undoubtedly a major factor in why he was always evading imprisonment, revelling in acts of sexual violence as he decried the very belief system that would condemn him for it: “The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind.” Within these walls we find scenes of papal rape, cavorting nuns and a photograph of a female S&M offering strapped to a crucifix… The wrong way round. But for me, the theme is most elegantly summarised in Man Ray’s 1930 photograph Prayer.

prayer-1930The exhibition is a little light on Sapphic content: the penis reigns supreme, especially towards the final rooms, by which time it’s all degenerating into something carnivalesque. Engravings of allegorical penises from the 1760s, titillating female acrobats astride the erect members of her two urinating spotters (Carl Schleich’s Pièce acrobatique, 1820). Finely wrought pewter phalluses, complete with piston mechanism, marked ‘providence of widows and nuns’, circa 1800. And my personal favourite: penis phenakistiscopes – coloured, patterned discs that spin to form an image, for which no imagination required. Reproductions would have sold like hotcakes at the gift shop.

Maybe not a great first-date exhibition, depending on what signals you want to send; but definitely a conversation starter.

PhekanoscopePhénakistiscope avec disques à décors érotiques, vers 1835 Paris, collection Mony Vibescu

Sade: Attaquer le soleil runs until 25 January, 2015, but will almost certainly be extended due to popular demand.

Advertisements

Tombées du Camion: Montmartre’s valley of the dolls

IMG_9217Here’s a French riddle for you. I’m standing in an 18sqm chamber, hundreds of eyes following my every move, yet I’m completely alone. Where am I?

Tucked away in a forgotten passageway, between the upmarket fashion boutiques of Place des Abbesses and the fall from grace to the seedy strip of Pigalle, you’ll stumble upon one of the most unusual and captivating spaces in Paris: Tombées du Camion. It will seem like you stumbled upon this mystery shop even if you set out intent on going there. From the métro Abbesses, one of the deepest in Paris, you face a dizzying 36m climb up a brightly decorated spiral staircase. The first thing that comes into view when you emerge is an antique carousel, the white whale of the Sacre Coeur looming beyond. Just a five-minute cobblestoned stroll away, hidden treasure awaits.

IMG_9259I pass hour after happy hour behind the counter — miraculously, gainfully employed in France — but never know quite how to sum up what we sell there. To step inside this bizarre bazaar for the first time is to step out of synch with the rest of the modern world. Time stops; I feel a little dirty checking the clock on my iPhone4, by far the newest thing in the store.

So don’t be surprised if it takes a moment to recalibrate as you contemplate this concrete cave of vintage ephemera, illuminated by industrial lamps and lined with old wooden boxes and oversized specimen jars — everything in its right place. Lots of things. Strange things, hoarded from the cobwebbiest corners of factories in secret locations around France. Unused wooden bar tokens, bicycle-shaped sunglasses from the Tour de France, packets of toilet paper circa 1950s, now objets d’art repurposed to have no purpose. Most items are fabrication française, like the Gauloises issued to French troops in World War II (consumption not advisable), a cloud of nostalgia now that everyone in the smoking capital of the world puffs on electronic cigarettes.

Sift through postcards that play an old song when you place them on a turntable; plunge your hand into a beaker of miniature plastic babies. And if you feel hundreds of eyes on you, don’t be alarmed. The eyes are an idée fixe: beady taxidermy eyes, disembodied dolls’ eyes that wink inscrutably from under thick lashes; round ones in delicate blown glass, perennially surprised. And that’s not all. Once you’ve had you’re fill of eyes, you can move on to all manner of mismatched body parts: heads, arms and legs and even white plastic femurs, the oldest items in this macabre catalogue dating from 1900.

You would have to come to the conclusion that Charles Mas, the procurer of this vast array of bibelots, bits and bobs, is a grown man who plays with dolls. When we met for my job interview I was expecting an elderly miser with a pipe. But the guy who drives the camion of Tombées du Camion — enigmatic and intense, never glimpsed without his leather biker jacket — embodies a new breed of brocanteur.

“Je suis un peu maniac,” he warned me at the beginning of my trial. No shit. Looking around the store, improbable combinations of knickknacks in meticulous patterns along the walls, it would be hard to disagree. But it’s also immediately clear that there’s a sense of humour behind the way they are brought together, in harmony or discord, anachronistically, sometimes in poor taste. Like the naked rubber belly dancer (my favourite item to demonstrate) next to glinting crucifixes priced at 33 euros.

Charles is the kind of man who will look you straight in the face and tell you that there’s poetry in a ping-pong ball — a stretch even for a Frenchman. And the strange charm of his concept store is, it’s completely believable. He’s not afraid to get all literary about it either, likening the way people respond to these unassuming artifacts to the madeleine de Proust; how a trinket worth almost nothing (represented by the French ‘madeleine’ sponge-cake) can impart profound joy and trigger memories.

IMG_9571

For me, it’s a bit like working in a surrealist supermarket, or in an Escher painting, where every item could repeat ad infinitum. Even though it’s a bit magic as far as first jobs in France go, it’s still a job like any other. There’s a first time for everything, even the banal: cashing my first French cheque, washing French piss off the sidewalk etc.

Tombees yeux dentisteBut excursions outside the ordinary are frequent. A typical day will likely bring a woman who buys a brooch in the shape of a sexy stilettoed leg for her amputee friend. Or a Brazilian artist inflating female condoms in-store after squeezing some delicate celluloid babies inside. An elderly man enquiring if we have doorknobs, poignées de portes, disappointed to learn we only carry coffin handles, poignées de cercueils. (I’ve amassed a pretty strange vocab list.) A surprise visit from the boss, who will breeze in for as long as it takes to explain the function of a WTF item (that metal rod is actually for crushing sugar cubes) and assign a task I’ve never been asked to perform elsewhere (polish these rusted antique keys with steel wool — but not too much, or they won’t look authentic).

It’s fun here. The eyes wink at me. And I wink back.

Tombées du Camion has just opened its second stunning boutique at the Marché aux Puces, Marché Vernaison, allée 1, stand 29. Du samedi au lundi, de 10h à 18h. Venez voir!

Photos of Tombées du Camion Abbesses by Louise Carrasco

Tombees

Anarchy dans le Musée: Europunks storm Paris at the Cité de la Musique

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It’s not too often you walk into a museum and the girl at the counter presents you with ribbons that read What The Fuck, l’Anarchie and Do It Yourself, along with a wet sponge to daub on fake tattoos. (‘Not to worry, I brought my own.’) But the Cité de la Musique is going through its rebellious teens with the new exhibition Europunk, launched at a packed vernissage Monday night.

i-hate-french-cooking-jamie_medThis is a journey through an explosive musical, artistic and political movement with a lasting influence, from its raucous underground beginnings in England circa 1976 (this year being the 35th anniversary of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) through a short but intense burst of activity to the post-punk/new wave days crowned by Joy Division in the early 1980s. In between there’s all manner of French, German, Italian and Dutch punks making their hoarse voices heard — most of which I heard right here for the first time, having arrived on the scene a decade late on completely the wrong side of the world.

Putting aside the issue of whether displaying punk ephemera in a major government-sponsored institution legitimises it culturally or simply strips it of its street cred, the first question that might come to mind for those on the other side of the world is: why separate the American and European scenes? Head curator Éric de Chassey argues that society seemed more closed in, the urgency of creative expression as anti-establishment statements even greater. The Berlin Wall was in their backyard; the scars were still fresh from events like the student uprisings and wildcat riots of May 1968 in France; and ongoing trials for war criminals meant the stain of the Holocaust had spread to the next generation. The result, he says, was more defiantly counter-culture than sub-culture:

On a du mal à imaginer aujourd’hui combien la société de l’époque était fermée, combien le contexte politique et social pouvait sembler bloqué. Cela paraît déjà très loin… En Europe, les punks ne veulent pas faire de l’art, la question de l’anonymat est centrale.

‘Les Américains, eux, se posent en permanence la question de l’art. Les chanteurs se prennent pour des poètes, les musiciens recherchent des cautions esthétiques… Le punk européen présente également la particularité de se penser comme une contre-culture, plutôt que comme une sous-culture. La contre-culture, c’est vouloir tout changer. La sous-culture demeure dans une niche.’

This is very much the message put forward in more than 500 original DIY pieces crowding the walls: fanzines, record sleeves, posters and flyers; Sex Pistols collagist Jamie Reid parodying the French Revolution, a fat sow decked out in the crown jewels, Vivienne Westwood chemise that looks suspiciously like a concentration camp uniform bearing the scrawl ‘Only anarchists are pretty’ and ‘Subversion: it’s fun’.

PHOb19b4690-34d1-11e3-95fe-3bac7a191126-300x400The French collective Bazooka certainly thought so. These ‘graphic commando’ heirs to  the Dadaists — Kiki Picasso, Loulou Picasso, Electric Clito and Bananar — emerged from the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts ready to fuck some shit up, launching their own zine, taking over art direction of the leftist paper Libération, and illustrating album covers for Elvis Costello and Iggy and the Stooges. Theirs is some of the most striking, even shocking work featured in the exhibition.

My man-bag for the evening, and one of the most heavily inked guests at the opening, was street art photographer Alex Tassot. Together we ran amok through the two halls of the Cité de la Musique until they kicked us out, listening to loose spandex-clad German girl bands like Kleenex, turning our noses up at the throbbing gristle served in the food truck on site, and peering in the window of the supervised DIY studio where you can flail wildly at a drum kit or eke out the three chords required to form a punk band. (Children, thankfully, not allowed). A grumpy attendant machine-pressed my DIY badge for me.

Outside, properly hands-on and grimy in the true spirit of DIY, tattooed man-bag and I fixed the rickety mudguard on my vélo with a bit of wire we found outside the metro. I rode home feeling proud of my inner punk.

Europunk runs riot at the Cité de la Musique until 19 January, 2014. Programmed events in October include concerts from old punks (the Buzzcocks, PiL) and new punks (Cheveu, Holograms, Kap Bambino), and onsite cinema screenings.