De Sade In Barcelona

Barcelona’s De Sade exhibition valiantly attempts to rehabilitate the much-libelled writer but then fumbles things at the last minute.

Wandering the streets of Barcelona last week, we were struck by the large pink signs with the word ‘SADE’ emblazoned on them in large letters. This either heralded an unexpected comeback by the bland 1980s soul songstress or something rather more interesting, and upon reaching the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, the latter proved to be the case. Sade: La Llibertat o el Mal (Sade: Freedom or Evil) proved to be an exhibition about the Divine Marquis – or, more accurately, about his influence on the 20th-century avant-garde and into today. Well, obviously, we were not going to pass that up.

Before we get into the exhibition itself, a bit about the CCCB. This is a major modern art and culture centre in the middle of a major European city, arguably on the level of the V&A (if you remove all the ancient historical art and focus on the temporary exhibitions) or the Tate Modern; certainly bigger than London’s Design Museum. Yet tickets for this exhibition were just €6 and allowed you to visit twice (“because the show is so large you might not be able to take it all in on one visit” as the ticket seller explained). In London, a show of this size would set you back the best part of £20 and that would be for a single visit. Is the CCCB ridiculously cheap or are the major London art centres outrageously overpriced? You can decide that for yourself.

Few historical figures have been as unfairly maligned over the years as the Marquis De Sade, a man who most people seem to believe carried out his novels’ outrageous atrocities in real life and was a murderer and rapist. In truth, De Sade’s time in prison was mostly thanks to the political shenanigans of his mother-in-law and down to his writing rather than his actions; he was a libertine who was aghast at the cruelties of the French Revolution even as he was (briefly) treated as one of its heroes and most – if not all – the claims against him are a result of people conflating fiction with real life and happily believing the propaganda of his opponents. Essentially, De Sade’s reputation was destroyed in the ways we associate today with Twitter witch hunts and his work demonised by the same people that also banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill. He has been condemned by less than reliable sources and we should take care not to fall for their nonsense.

This exhibition makes some effort to rehabilitate De Sade, at least as a muse to avant-garde writers and artists – and then rather fudges the issue with final rooms that feel like they have been included as a sop to the moralisers, perhaps as a way of securing public funding – even today, we can’t be seen to be celebrating De Sade’s work, at least not without adding a wagging finger of disapproval. The final sections of this exhibition sail perilously close to implying that De Sade – apparently by virtue of his name being taken over a century after his death to define a certain sexual kink and then twisted further to represent any sort of cruelty and abusiveness – somehow has a connection to the atrocities of war, domestic abuse and rape. We were genuinely baffled about just what a room of metronomes, each click representing the hit of a domestic abuser, or the clothes of rape victims had to do with De Sade’s work, other than buying into the censorial belief that pornography (or horror movies, or heavy metal, or video games) causes sexual violence – a fatuous idea at the best of times, but even more thinly stretched here – implication is that De Sade is popular reading matter amongst abusers and rapists and that seems a bit unlikely*. By closing the exhibition with this, the organisers are effectively leaving this as the final thought for visitors – the lasting impression that they will take away beyond all the art and literature and liberation seen earlier – and that feels unforgivable.

Similarly, the exhibition seems to be scrambling to tie De Sade – positively or negatively, at times it seems as though no one is quite sure – to modern touchstone issues like #metoo, LGBTQ+ and the war in Ukraine. Not everything is about everything and while I can see the intersection between De Sade and modern-day explorations of sexuality and identity, the connections made here seem too vague to come across as anything other than tokenism. Perhaps the 21st Century artistic influence of De Sade was either too minor or too problematic to include, or perhaps – more likely – there is the need to make everything political, everything about what people are concerned with right now, even if it is to the detriment of the exhibition and the subject matter.

I’ve discussed all this more than I might have done had the exhibition as a whole been a bit flat. But up until these final moments, this is a remarkable show with some extraordinary displays. It’s near essential, albeit as frustrating for what is overlooked as it is inspirational for its contents. No exhibition is perfect and there will always be significant examples of pop culture – too commercial to be seen as art, too obscure to perhaps even be noticed by curators – that are ignored. We’ll come back to that.

The first half of the exhibition is a mind-boggling collection of work – from early editions of De Sade’s novels and the outrageous illustrations that accompanied them, through to 20th century work that is directly connected to De Sade – illustrations by Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Leonor Fini, Jean Benoit and others – to work that riffed on the Sadean sense of libertine liberation by artists like Hans Bellmer, Otto Dix, Marie Vassileff, Pierre Molinier, Araki, Robert Mapplethorpe, Georges Bataille and more. This is all fantastic and inspiring, not least of all because seeing it all presented together under the Sadean banner feels like a long-overdue celebration of De Sade and his influence over the artistic and cultural revolutionaries who shaped so much of the 20th Century. While De Sade was still being routinely libelled, these artists took his ideas and created new, challenging work with them. Seeing so much of what we now consider the great works of the last century gathered together with their influences acknowledged feels like a debt paid and a long overdue vindication of De Sade as an artist. It is worth making an effort to see this exhibition just for this work – and whatever other issues there are with it can be overlooked because of this.

But getting back to the omissions. Most significantly absent are most of the movies based on De Sade and his work. Salo makes the cut, as does Marat/Sade, but beyond that, there is pretty much nothing except a compilation of clips, presented as a created work of art that doesn’t even credit the films that it lifts clips from. This feels doubly insulting, as included in the compilation are films and filmmakers that are significant but otherwise overlooked. I mean, I don’t expect every movie version of a De Sade novel to be featured – though there are not that many of them. But you might think that Jess Franco, who made several films based on De Sade’s work and many more that are distinctly Sadean is nature – and who is Spanish, for crying out loud – might at least get a mention. Similarly, you might reasonably think that The Story of O and the work of Catherine Robbe-Grillet (from The Image to her husband’s films to her entire life) would be more worthy of inclusion than Madonna’s Sex book, which is given a prominent display. But there you go. The fetish and BDSM scene is almost entirely overlooked apart from some token gestures and the porn world completely ignored. I hope it’s down to ignorance because if these cultural omissions are deliberate, that doesn’t speak well of the organisers at all. Perhaps if there was less emphasis on war atrocities and domestic violence that have nothing to do with De Sade or art, there might have been room to explore further. As it is, the exhibition feels as though it ignores huge chunks of culture from the late 1960s through to the 21st century and I can’t for the life of me understand why.

Even towards the end, there are striking moments – irrelevant, yes, but still impressive as works in their own right. Teresa Margolies’ PM 2010, for instance, is a vast wall of covers from one year of sensationalist Mexican tabloid PM, mixing graphic images of violent death with pin-up girls – sex and violence being sold as equally titillating. Yes, De Sade combined sex and violence and so I see the idea behind the inclusion, but as much as the piece is a visually astonishing experience, it remains a stretch to include here.

So Sade is very much a game of two halves – or maybe of three thirds, given that the middle section flags but doesn’t go off-topic with the same ferocity as the final section. I don’t doubt that if you are coming at things from a 21st Century POV, the Marquis is a bit of a challenge because his work certainly has no truck with the niceties of politically correct culture – the fact that this show exists at all is rather remarkable and I very much doubt that we’ll be seeing it coming over to the UK at any point. Admiration for its existence doesn’t mean that we should overlook its faults though. The more we associate De Sade with ‘sadism’ – and then redefine sadism as simple cruelty, hatred and genocidal psychopathy – the more we buy into the very ideas that have damned him for centuries.

* when British campaigners railed against the new editions of De Sade’s work in the early 1990s, their arguments were rather deflated by the simple fact that his novels are not exactly easy reading for most people and treat their atrocities with a clinical approach that is essentially anti-erotic  – there are much more accessible works out there for those looking for sexual thrills.


Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!



  1. I’ve not read any DeSade, what I know is thirf-fourth hand through the usual movies and so on, but I imahine the passive, herd mentality and authoritarianism present in the tabloids and in military activities, to be at odds with DeSade’s libertarian (or libertine, whatever) philosophy. But I guess that’s what you said so I should probly just shut up. Like, it’s fine to drool over whatever we put in front of you, just don’t probe your own depths (inevitably, and sadly, must add ‘oo-er’). ‘The Man’ uses sexual frustration to power his war-machines, dudes – it’s negative-orgone time. Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same weekend – bikini black! Probly some killjoy woke lezbo made them add those hand wringing blessmefatherforihavesinned codas.

  2. This is an excellent and clear-minded piece of writing, and one that you’d struggle to find in any of the more ‘literate’ publications that would be inclined to cover such an exhibition. It deserves to be read more widely.
    And yes, to not even have a basic nod of acknowledgement towards Franco’s films seems to be ignorance of a deliberate nature. The guy was awarded a lifetime achievement Goya not too long ago. I don’t believe that EVERYONE involved in this exhibition was unaware of that fact…..he should have had an entire section!

Comments are closed.