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.



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’.


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.


La Tour Est Folle: l’amour, 100% made in France (and hypoallergenic)


It’s the iconic symbol of l’amour in the most romantic city in the world. And lovers come from far and wide to pop the question atop this monumental phallus.

Now you can take a satisfying piece of Paris home with you, to do with what you will. Half-Peruvian Paris-based artist Sébastien Lecca has released La Tour Est Folle (a pun on ‘La Tour Eiffel’): a functional rubber objet d’art in the shape of the world-famous love totem, standing proud at 26cm from base to tip (the real thing is 324m high) and available in five colours, of which ‘le fushia explosif et brillant’ is proving most popular.

Unlike most souvenirs you might pick up in Paris, it’s 100% made in France — right down to the packaging — so it’s stimulating the French economy in a big way.


You can see Lecca’s whimsical chalk drawings of foetuses all over the streets of Paris. I followed the trail to his cramped, creaky corner of the famous artists’ squat at 59 Rue Rivoli, a carnival fun-house acid trip of 30 diverse artists working together in a share-house heaving with colour and creativity. It’s open for public drop-ins so you can see the results splattered all over the floors, walls and façade of this grand old six-storey edifice. Here, Lecca insisted I take one of his creations (‘de la couleur de votre choix!’) and cheerfully chatted with me about life, the universe and everything — but mainly about dildos — for a good 30 minutes while bemused visitors wandered in and out.

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ML: When I look at La Tour Est Folle, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to have a sex toy in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. How come no one’s done it before?

SL: It does seem self-evident, but I reflected on it for a year and worked on it for five months, sculpting the ceramic prototype here in the studio. I wanted to create a sex toy and go beyond the taboo of these objects before I had the idea of using the Eiffel Tower. There are little ducks, crocodiles — everything you can imagine — and I knew there was a space for artists in the midst of all that, but didn’t immediately have a concrete idea of what I could do.

ML: So were you walking the streets of Paris one day then suddenly looked up and had your answer?

SL: Well, my middle name is Gustave, like Mr Eiffel, so it’s only natural that I followed in his footsteps! Everyone thinks of the Eiffel Tower as the phallic symbol of Paris. Even Gustave Eiffel thought of it that way; I’ve seen archival sources where he talks about the phallic dimensions of his project and how it would shock people. Tourists in the sex shops of Pigalle ask if such an item exists; it was inevitable that someone would do it, and just happened to be me.

ML: And what have public reactions been like in the first few months?

SL: The gay community loves it, it’s sold well in gay shops; it’s in the Musée de l’Érotisme and other galleries in France, Tokyo and Ibiza; it’s popular with tourists, as a gift for bachelorette parties. A lot of people who buy it are buying a dildo for the first time. Because it stands upright so sturdily on its pillars, there’s talk of using it in safe-sex programs demonstrating how to put on a condom. But above all, it makes people laugh.

ML: It’s an iconic symbol of France, 100% made in France. Do you consider it patriotic?

SL: There’s this paradox that France is ‘the land of love’, the French have an international reputation for being incredibly romantic and sensual, but in terms of export we’re only known for our artisanal products — lavender-scented cream, hand-made chocolates, candles — and not for our objets d’amour. At the moment it’s the German, Swedish, Chinese and American sex toys that are most widely recognised.

To put an end to that paradox, we launched Plaisir de France, an association for manufacturers of sex objects made in France with the objective of cultural diffusion, to increase the visibility and awareness of these products, to democratise our sector of the industry, liaise with export partners, create local jobs…

ML: But as an artist working in a grungy, DIY space like 59 Rue Rivoli, isn’t it strange to be so heavily involved in the commercial and marketing side of flogging your product?

SL: There is no contradiction between business and art. There is only a contradiction between representation and ideology. In reality, an artist is also an entrepreneur. If as an artist you have something to say, you have to find the means to say it. You have to get involved in the marketing, communication and PR side of things.

ML: And is the result still art?

SL: Artists in general have a strong, instinctive curiosity for questions of sexuality. Making love is a creative act; it’s like making art! La Tour Est Folle is effectively art because it’s the realisation of a concept. It’s the conception of a joyous, playful humanising image of sexuality; a vertical vision, from the earth to the sky. Between the extremes of pornography there’s a respectful space where there’s a freedom of expression, where anything is possible.

Le foetus, le phallus, these symbols are all part of the universal themes I explore: life, love, our animal nature. In French imagery, there is the French kiss, the French touch, the romantic capital. I play with that cliché. As an artist, I quickly work out what the cliché is and ask myself how to subvert that, transform that. People don’t just like La Tour Est Folle because it’s a dildo; they like it as a decorative object.

ML: So do you think people use it, give it a wash and polish and then display it on their mantle again?

SL: That’s what’s happening!

ML: What’s next for La Tour Est Folle?

SL: There are plans for a model that lights up, just like the real tower. We’re developing a mini-motor with new technology made in France. And I’ll be touring to Las Vegas, São Paulo and eventually Sydney to represent Le Plaisir de France internationally.

ML: Have you had imitators?

SL: No copies yet, but I’m sure in China without doubt there’ll be a copy on the way. If ours is a little more expensive than something that’s eventually produced in China, it will still be the original, of the best quality available, and 100% made in France.

So if you can’t surprise your sweetheart with a trip to Paris, La Tour Est Folle could be the next best thing, available for €39.99 at Amusez-vous bien!