I went to Paris on Monday, 5 January 2015, on a mission to verify a hypothesis prompted by the seemingly arbitrary coincidence of two major exhibitions: I wanted to find out whether there is a conclusive connection between the Marquis de Sade, hellhound of 18th-century Enlightenment, and Marcel Duchamp, herald of 20th-century Conceptualism. Beyond the several Duchamp works included in the Sade show, I suspected there would be deeper resonances. On the afternoon of 6 January, I travelled back to Berlin. We all know what happened the next day. Since then, it has been as if my memory of these two exhibitions was retroactively tinted by the collective murder of satirists and writers. I need to ‘forget’ the killings to be able to see the exhibitions again; yet I also need to keep them in mind in order to understand how and why ideology, satire and violent conflict now appear to me in a different light.
The Duchamp exhibition, curated by Cécile Debray, convincingly put forth the argument that painting serves as a kind of ocular through which to bring an oeuvre into perspective that may otherwise seem to not add up. This was something the show’s title hinted at: ‘La Peinture, Même’ translates as ‘Painting, Even’ – meaning something like ‘yes, even through painting Duchamp can and must be understood’. But, phonetically, the title also sounds like ‘la peinture, m’aime’ – ‘painting loves me’, as if to say: Duchamp may have abandoned painting in 1918, but painting never abandoned him, influential as he remained. Given the small body of actual paintings he made, the show brought in other work, from early cartoons to late manuscripts, as well as paintings by other artists, from Henri Matisse to Giorgio de Chirico. But that was not a handicap. It made a whole era come alive. We see how Duchamp, in his formative years before 1912, was fundamentally influenced by newspaper satire and the Vaudevillian eroticism of early silent film. For example, an amusing roll of brides stripped not really bare was projected: different versions of the same small story of a woman half-undressing, with an excited suitor told to wait behind a folding-screen. ‘Remember that I wasn’t living among painters, but rather among cartoonists, in Montmartre … ’ reads a Duchamp quotation on the exhibition wall. His cartoons, published in humoristic journals, were drawn with precise, economical lines. One untitled example, published in ‘Le Rire’ in August 1910, shows a woman sitting on a sofa with hat and gown waiting for her partner to get dressed; she asks what is taking him so long, to which he replies: ‘La critique est aisée, mais la raie difficile’ – ‘Criticizing is easy, but parting the hair difficult’. The line is lifted from the poet Raymond Roussel, whom Duchamp greatly admired: ‘la raie’ is pronounced similarly to ‘l’art est’, ‘art is’ – a pun on the common French saying that ‘criticizing is easy, but art is difficult’.
While word play remained central to Duchamp, he didn’t settle for being a mildly entertaining cartoonist. Instead, he explored painting, with an amazing ratio of works hitting the mark given the small pool of samples. His Portrait of the Artist’s Father (1910), slightly Cézannian yet still realist, shows Eugène Duchamp sitting in a chair, resting his bald head on his hand, furrowing his brow – a study of a pensive personality. Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel from the same year is remarkably different, opening up to the intense palette of Henri Mattise, yet inflected with a proto-Surreal quality. Dumouchel, an old school friend, was an early advocate of using X-rays in medicine, but the strange halo around his hand hints at the fourth dimension, phantom photography and Odilon Redon’s dark visualizations of the invisible, as with the hovering, haloed eyeball of Vision (1879, plate 8 of the series ‘Dans le rêve’, In the Dream).
It is ironic to see such a clear demonstration that the artist routinely cited for his rejection of the ‘retinal’ in favour of the ‘cerebral’ actually spent much of his life staging acts of prolonged eyeballing: from his early intimate bathing scenes in a Fauvist style, such as Femme nue assise dans un tub (Nude Sitting in a Tub, 1910), through the dramatically coded constellation of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), to his last opus magnum, Étant donnés … (Given … , 1946–66), represented here by a small-scale model by Ulf Linde (1993–94).
The slipperiness between what you see and what it means came into its own with Nu descendant un escalier n° 2 (Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, 1912). It remains subject to speculation what exactly prompted the Cubist hanging committee of the Salon of 1912 to urge Duchamp to paint over the title he had put on the canvas (in turn causing him to withdraw), but surely it had to do with its literalism. Knowing Duchamp’s wit, the committee must have worried about a hidden pun further exaggerating what was already unusual – a female nude not in a boudoir or nature, but in a dynamic, semi-public environment. The dissectory mode of Nude Descending … , fanning out the body into fractured machinery, reached a second pinnacle with Mariée (The Bride), also from 1912. Duchamp made it during a sojourn in Munich and, breaking firmly away from Cubist and Fauvist styles, painted it in a fine-tuned, near-old-masterly fashion, as if he had to go back in history in order to be able to move forward. The fleshy tones of his palette turn intricately nested wheelwork into polymorphous perversity. In 1949, Duchamp cited the works of Lucas Cranach the Elder, which he had seen at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, as a major inspiration, a fact aptly played out at the Pompidou with the display of the latter’s Venus of 1532 nearby.
Duchamp’s troubling, coldly anatomical objectification of female body reverts, paradoxically, to a celebration of female sexual agency – a theme continued at Musée D’Orsay, albeit in a much darker register. The Marquis de Sade, as the late Angela Carter argued in her ground-breaking book The Sadeian Woman (1979), with his ‘diabolical lyricism of fuckery’, treats ‘the facts of female sexuality not as a moral dilemma but as a political reality’. With Sade’s cruel heroine Juliette, libertinage becomes inescapably entwined with liberty: as long as political equality is not established, sexuality is envisioned as a monstrously violent, desecratory demarcation of its absence. Annie Le Brun, curator of ‘Sade. Attacking the Sun’, has been an expert on the Marquis since the late 1970s and, like Carter, she resuscitates him from male-dominated philosophical readings as a philosophic force in his own right. Le Brun, author of Sade: A Sudden Abyss (1990), set the mood with projections of 20th-century film – from Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age, 1930), through Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s frontal assault, with Salò (1975), on our ability to tolerate images of horrific torture and, by way of these, confront the perversity of Fascism. All of these works remind us that the artist never leaves this confrontation unscathed, lest on the moral high ground – and neither do we, drawn in as voyeurs. Le Brun lets this subtext run through her startling show. The pre-eminent medium, historically, is the print, from Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s 18th-century obscenities, as anatomical as they are elegant, to Alfred Kubin’s late-19th-century visions of lust and fear anticipating Franz Kafka and Max Ernst.
Reproduction removes us at least one step from the artist’s hand; but when we see Paul Cézanne’s brush strokes depicting a woman being strangled by a man (La femme étranglée, Strangled Woman, 1875–76), or Francisco de Goya’s little painting of Cannibals Preparing their Victims (1800–08), we start to wonder how much darkness is involved in the artistic effort of ‘empathizing’ with the subject matter. Likewise, no real ‘critical detachment’ is possible for us – these images seem to speak directly to our best fears and worst desires, and feigning Postmodern numbness reveals itself as just another defence mechanism. Nevertheless, it is important not to get sidelined by the question of shock value and to consider instead – like Sade himself – the connection between war and lust. It was war, the gorefest of power grabbing and trauma, which formed Sade’s education: he was a young colonel in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), in which more than one million people are estimated to have died. ‘By killing in order to steal,’ he wrote in around 1799, ‘thieves do less harm than army generals who destroy entire nations out of pride alone.’ (Was he thinking of Napoleon?) Along with images of sexualized war crimes such as Edgar Degas’s Scene de Guerre au Moyen Âge (War Scene of the Middle Ages, 1863–65), with its burning village and naked women killed or abducted, quotes on the walls throughout the show revealed Sade’s unwillingness to accept tyrannical rule – he helped a deserter flee to keep him from being executed, and was a fundamental opponent of capital punishment, arguing that if citizens can’t kill, neither should the state.
Whatever personal pleasure Sade may have derived from writing about torture of the most grisly kind, he apparently never committed anything worse than what is legally possible in a contemporary swingers club (at least not according to the two court cases he was involved in). Still, he was arguably the first writer to unflinchingly address the sexualization of violence as a specific form of power lust. He was possibly also the first to describe, without restraint and in detail, ritual enactments of violently sexual fantasies as a cathartic means of liberation from repressive sexual identities. ‘Attacking the Sun’ stressed this dimension by including queer followers in Sade’s vein, from Aubrey Beardsley to Czech artist Toyen, who was unusually bold about the ambivalence of her gender role and sexuality, even for her Surrealist contemporaries – and made illustrations of Sade’s Justine (1791) in 1932. Duchamp’s Objet-dard (Dart Object, 1951) is an awkward, ambivalent object – a limp bronze phallus created from the female rib that would later be a part of Etant donnés and another example of the gender-role-subverting strand of the artist’s work. Duchamp’s wry serenity may be seen as a late heir to Sade’s sardonic belligerence – just as ideas of civility and liberated expression may to this day be seen as connected to the cataclysmic brutality of the French Revolution. Now is as good a moment as any to re-examine these connections.
First published in Issue 169