In 1789 the Marquis De Sade was one of eight prisoners held in the state prison of Bastille. For a number of years he had been detained under lettres de cachet, a system were the King could imprison a subject without trial and without the opportunity of appeal. Lettres de cachet were one of the most hated features of the ancien regime, as it was open to a wide variety of abuses, notably the possible life-long detainment of embarrassing family members by wealthy and noble petitioners.
On the morning of July 2, the Marquis was in a highly excitable state and nervously paced the confines of his cell. His wife had told him about the chaos on the streets of Paris. The Marquis had noticed the stepping up of military preparations within the fortress. At noon his warden came to tell the Marquis that his daily walk around the prison grounds was cancelled for today, by the order of the commandant. Outraged by the loss of this privilege, the Marquis grabbed a long metal funnel, that was usually used to empty his chamber pot into the moat below, but also worked as an impromptu megaphone, and began to harangue the crowds below that the guards were slitting the prisoners throats and called upon the assembled mob to storm the fortress. After being subdued with great difficultly by a number of guards the Marquis was transferred from the Bastille to the mental asylum of Charenton.
Just 12 days later the Bastille was indeed stormed by the revolutionaries and the weapons and ammunition’s cache were seized. As a symbol of Royal authority its fall was especially significant. The French Revolution had begun in earnest and the world would never be the same again. One of the first things the new government did was to abolish the lettres de cachet and so on April the 2nd 1790 the Marquis Donatien Aphonse Francois De Sade left Charenton a free man for the first time in over a decade: and with this release was born Citizen Sade, revolutionary and man of letters.
The above imaginary portrait by Man Ray refers to this central event in De Sade’s life. De Sade is the imprisoned man whose entire countenance is made out of prison bricks who dreams of an absolute and terrifying freedom, looking on at the conflagration of the hated citadel of oppression. The text at the bottom of the painting is a quote from the De Sade’s last will and testament.
In the early 1930’s Jindrich Styrsky, the co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group made a pilgrimage to Provence, to visit the ruins of the Chateau La Coste, the ancestral home of the Sade family. Here he took a number of mysterious photographs of the crumbling walls and overgrown doors which inspired his artistic partner, Toyen, to paint in oils the illusionistic Au Chateau La Coste. The drawing of the predatory fox seemingly coming to life gives the painting a singular sense of menace which is particularly apt for the place which so inspired the Marquis De Sade.
The Marquis was very attached to La Coste. During the long years of his confinement in various prisons and asylums he routinely mourned its destruction during the Revolution. It was at La Coste, after all, that the Marquis had first developed his lifelong passion for the theatre, staging lavish productions which he naturally starred in. More ominously it was also at La Coste that the Marquis orchestrated and choreographed, with the aid of his wife, Renee-Pelagie, elaborate orgies that was to serve as the model for the unbridled license afforded his characters in the sinister and oppressive castles in his searingly radical, and horrifying, libertine fictions of the prison years.
Toyen was profoundly influenced by her exposure to Sade. A large majority of Toyen’s work is explicitly sexual in content. She surrounded herself with erotic objects and imagery. Her artistic collaborator, the Surrealist poet, Sadean scholar and cultural theorist Annie Le Brun, whose blistering critique of contemporary society The Reality Overload I cannot recommend highly enough, commented that Toyen, who was at the time well into her seventies, would visit the movie theatre several times a week to watch X-rated films.
The ground-breaking, innovative American photographer and painter Man Ray was another Surrealist affiliated artist who constantly referenced the life and work of the Marquis De Sade (see Illustrating the Divine Marquis for further examples of art inspired by the Divine Marquis).
As well as the art that explicitly points to the Marquis as a source, notably 1933’s witty and scandalous Homage to D.A.F De Sade, the brilliant Imaginary Portrait of 1936 and the geometric surrealism of Aline et Valcour (a nod to Man Ray’s favourite novel by De Sade), there are pieces that invoke the spirit of De Sade, especially the photograph Prayer from 1930.
As always with Man Ray’s photographs, Prayer is brilliantly composed with stark contrasts between the absolute, hushed and sacred darkness that frames and throws into sharp relief the lunar luminosity of the body ‘praying’ on the grubby bed. Wilfully blasphemous and perversely sacrilegious, Prayer highlights the still radical proposition of De Sade’s that the body, and the body alone, is the nexus of desire and the locus of all human motivation.
During the period when Baroque reigned supreme, overt eroticism all but disappeared from Western Art. It would take the emergence of Rococo, the florid, playful and frankly somewhat sluttish younger French sister of Baroque, to take art back into the boudoir.
Francois Boucher was one of the leading lights of Rococo and enjoyed the patronage of the prime mover of the style, Madame de Pompadour, the Official Chief Mistress of King Louis XV. As well as mythological genres scenes featuring Venus he painted two odalisques stripped of all allegorical trappings, the L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 and the L’Odalisque Blonde from 1752.
France was ongoing a vogue for the mysterious, exotic East during the Ancien Regime. Several libertine novels including Denis Diderot Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon Fils La Sopha (The Sofa) are set in fantasy Oriental lands, partly to give full reign to the imagination but also to disguise the political satire on the luxuriant and decadent Court of Louis XV. Part of the attraction, for men anyway, were the stories of odalisques; mistresses or concubines in a harem.
Boucher’s L’Odalisque Brune from 1745 was reportedly a portrait of Madame Boucher , which led Diderot, Encyclopedist and somewhat risque writer of the above-mentioned Les bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse (The Nun)to state that Boucher was prostituting his wife. L’Odalisque Blonde is a portrait of the courtesan Marie-Louise O’Murphy. King Louis XV was so taken with this painting that he arranged for Marie-Louise to become a petite maitresse (lesser mistress). At least one of her children was the King’s.
Along with a very sweet tooth I share with the Marquis De Sade a quasi-mystical obsession with numbers. Certain numbers that have cropped up recently suggested a piece on the 18th century libertine tradition in French which the Divine Marquis radically re-envisioned at its culmination.
Originally the term libertine was used to describe political opponents of Calvin in Geneva, and went on to develop connotations of atheism and dangerous free-thinking. However by the 18th century the definition had narrowed to describe someone who was a sexual adventurer and debauchee. In the narrow homogeneous confines of French aristocratic circles in the Ancien Regime there flourished a literature which was entirely dedicated to examining the erotic manoeuvres and cynical mores of a fashionable society that pursued pleasure at all costs yet had to hypocritically maintain face .
Several novels including Diderot’s Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels) and Crebillon fils La Sopha (The Sofa) transposed the setting to Oriental locations to disguise the political satire of the court of Louis XV. Others were less cautious and set their novels in a contemporary setting with thinly veiled portraits of famous influential figures; the resulting scandals ruined careers and damaged reputations. Laclos the author of the masterpiece of libertine fiction and to my mind the greatest novel ever written, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liasions) never escaped the notoriety that the book brought him; he unjustly became the byword for cynicism and Machiavellian scheming.
One of the central features of the libertine novel is the conflict between sense and sentiment that readers of Jane Austen will be familiar with. However unlike Austen they resolve themselves as an unsentimental education where the hero or heroine is taught the ways of the world and learns how to exploit others for their sensual gratification. As the prophet of the enlightenment Voltaire noted ‘Pleasure is the object, duty and the goal of all rational creatures’, and the aristocrats portrayed are above all rational creatures.
During their education, which always involves seduction and a subtle corruption the characters are taught about the moment. The moment is a key concept in libertine philosophy, it is when the object of desire is most susceptible to seduction. The newly minted libertines are made aware of when the moment is approaching, how to take full advantage of the moment and even how to manufacture the moment in someone who is inimical to seduction. The classic novels of sexual education are Crebillon fils Les Égarements du cœur et de l’esprit ou Mémoires de M. de Meilcour (The Wayward Heart and Head or the Memoirs of M. de Meilcour) and the Marquis De Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir ou Les instituteurs immoraux (Philosophy in the Boudoir or The Immoral Teachers). De Sade of course is notably more extreme than his predecessors and combines elements of the Gothic and Baroque while pointing forward to Romanticism and Decadence.