Reflection: How art can break down barriers

Dr Alyce Mahon is a Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History. She has recently published The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde.


Dr Alyce Mahon

As many of us look out at the world from behind our windows or reach out to others through screens and online chats, we increasingly find time and space blurring. After months of lockdown, we have learnt to slow down, to allow the eye to zoom in on the everyday and overlooked as we attempt to face the immensity of a global pandemic – social media is full of cloudscapes, city skylines, flowers and new recipes on the one hand, and manifestations of fear and outrage over political and racial injustice, on the other.

The libertine philosopher Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814), often named the “Divine Marquis”, spent over thirty years locked up in prisons and asylums, surviving the brutal reality and trauma of incarceration through the windows of his imagination. Seeking escape in the fantastic, his fiction also hovers between attention to the small detail and the epic – descriptions of rooms, textures, flesh give way to terrifying sexual orgies of mythic proportions, offering an absurd commentary on the world’s socio-political collapse. Works such as The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinisms (1785), Philosophy in the Boudoir (1795) and The New Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue, Followed by the Story of Juliette, Her Sister (1797-99), demonstrate the artistic mind’s potential to turn inwards and escape through fictional alternatives. Sade could see and smell the guillotine outside his cell window in Paris in 1794, and he witnessed the celebratory revolutionary festivals during a short freedom as “Citoyen Sade” in 1790s Paris. His libertine prose subverted a France of institutionalised violence through its absurdly amoral, rhetorical, heights. As he wrote to his long suffering wife in August 1779, “my pen will be my weapon, as long as fate does not furnish me with others”.

Surrealist artists claimed Sade as “Surrealist in sadism” in their first manifesto of 1924 and strove to discover his lost works and publish them. Their admiration for Sade as a philosopher of the boudoir led me to research how other artists and writers in the twentieth century also turned for inspiration to what I call the “Sadean imagination”. Again and again, at times of political trauma and terror, Sade offered artists a means to awaken – if not assault – the spectator’s senses and to examine humanist values. As a feminist art historian, I was especially interested in how Sade put pornography at the service of women and how female artists embraced Sade’s fiction for their own creative expression. Many claimed his libertine heroine Juliette as a model ‘modern’ woman, in contrast to her long-suffering virtuous sister Justine. For example, the Surrealist painter Leonor Fini illustrated Sade’s Juliette in 1944 while living in Rome, delighting in printing the blasphemous tale in the Vatican. In 1962 Fini also illustrated Dominique Aury’s Story of O (1954), a sado-masochistic novel Aury described as a love story in the Sadean tradition as “Sade made me understand that we are all jailers, and all in prison, in that there is always someone within us whom we enchain, whom we imprison, whom we silence”.

Other cases I explore in my book include Guy Debord’s imageless film which ends in twenty-four minutes of silence, Hurlements en faveur de Sade (Howls for Sade, 1952), the dark explorations of victimisation in the art of Unica Zürn, Peter Brook’s adaptation of Marat/Sade (1966), in which the libertine philosophy of Sade is pitted against the rationalism of Marat at a time of anti-Vietnam protests, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salò (1975) where a world of toxic sexual consumption is staged in a chateau presented to the viewer as “1944-45, northern Italy, during the Nazi-Fascist occupation”.

The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde documents and celebrates those avant-garde artists whose work has all too often be overlooked, marginalised or censored whilst acknowledging that their subversive aesthetic is both profoundly challenging and liberating. It was not until 2017 that the French nation finally declared Sade’s original scroll of 120 Days of Sodom a “national treasure”, safely removing it from a public auction and into the ‘canon’. To my mind, his story-telling should be treasured by all as it draws the reader into a world where liberty herself – political, moral, creative liberty – is the real protagonist. And in the midst of a global pandemic that is testing humanity in new ways, I see Sade as offering us a view of an extreme ‘world inside’ but also a powerful reminder of how art can break down barriers, real or imagined.

The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde is published by Princeton University Press (2020).

You can read all the Reflections by Trinity Fellows. 


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