“Sade is surrealist in sadism.” —André Breton
The legacy of the Marquis de Sade can be felt strongly in the 20th century, largely because of the efforts of the French Surrealists in the ‘20s and ‘30s: writers and artists like Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, and Georges Bataille, among many others. For the Surrealists, Sade was seen as a revolutionary, a figure who tread new ground in literary form and daring, but also a radical champion of personal freedom, sexuality, and transgression. In Surrealism, History and Revolution, Simon Baker writes, “The alternative construction of Sade as a revolutionary hero began with the earliest twentieth-century accounts of his life and work, but it can be summed up by Paul Eduard’s 1926 essay title, ‘D.A.F. de Sade, fantastic and revolutionary writer.’”
Baker continued, “Between the texts in which first Apollinaire and later Breton, Eluard, and Bataille tied Sade to his revolutionary destiny, there were always attempts to represent him visually. […] The most notable significant early twentieth century images, however, are the imaginary portraits produced by Man Ray from 1936 onwards, which take the principle of the archive as portrait to produce Sade from the perspective of surrealism.” The Philadelphia-born Man Ray (née Emmanuel Radnitzky) was an integral member of this group and spent much of his life in France; his drawings, prints, and photographs inspired by Sade are some of the most striking visual reminders of the 18th century writer’s impact on the Surrealists.
In 1933, for Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (Surrealism in the service of the revolution), Man Ray created Monument à D.A.F. de Sade (Monument to D.A.F. de Sade) after viewing the original manuscript of Sade’s Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage (The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage):
While this is obviously not a portrait of Sade, to which Man Ray would later turn his attention, it captures the philosophical spirit of Les 120 Journées de Sodome: explicit sexuality, blasphemy, and an implied preoccupation with anal sex. This simple, elegant image—a photograph of a woman’s ass framed by an upside-down cross—would go on to appear in slightly different versions, such as this below version which I believe is from 1935, and would later be used as a cover for a print edition of Sade’s novel.
This was also not Man Ray’s final word on Sade. Later in the ’30s, he began to work on sketches that would turn into a painting, an imaginary portrait of the great writer. During the ‘30s, Man Ray was obviously preoccupied with Sade, along with his fellow Surrealists, partly as a symbol for the intersection between sex, violence, radical politics, and intellectualism. In Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent, David Bate writes that Man Ray visited Sade’s ancestral chateau with a number of the other Surrealists, and was regularly exposed to Sade’s then little-read work thanks to a colleague and neighbor. “Man Ray lived next to Maurice Heine (in rue Campagne-Première, Montparnasse), who for fifteen years had been sifting and piecing together parts of Sade’s manuscripts from libraries and museums in Europe. In was due to Heine that numerous texts by Sade were published between 1926 and 1935.”
Man Ray’s various portraits of Sade, culminating in a 1938 painting titled Portrait imaginaire de D.A.F. de Sade (Imaginary Portrait of the Marquis de Sade), depicts the looming face of a mature, fleshy Sade, whose visage is somewhat monstrous, even grotesque. His revolutionary aspect is emphasized by the burning Bastille in the background, and a small painted inscription at the bottom, a quote from Sade, which reads: “Afin que les traces de ma tombe disparaissent du dessus de la surface de la terre comme je me flatte que ma mémoire s’effacera de l’esprit des hommes.“ (Roughly translated: “So that the traces of my tomb disappear from above the surface of the earth as I flatter myself that my memory will fade from the spirit of the men.”)
Man Ray said, “I made an imaginary portrait. I looked at some portraits for the anatomical details, and I did this portrait. First some sketches in ink, and finally the oil painting, and at the bottom of this painting I put the last sentence of his testament, which is great, by the way. […] Sade was initially afraid of being buried alive: his body would have to stay forty-eight hours before being buried.”
Man Ray explained that the coloring in the painting is meant to connect Sade inextricably with the Bastille and with the foundation of Paris itself, as if he is part of the fabric of the city that birthed Surrealism. He says, “It is gray because I painted it like the stones of the Bastille! Because after the Bastille was dismantled, a pile of things was built with its stones, in Paris, several bridges, several buildings. That’s why they are gray and that’s why Sade’s portrait is gray.”
Apparently this portrait came about because of a conversation with Heine, who said that it was a shame there would be no image of Sade to go along with the new annotated publication he had worked so long to prepare. Man Ray said, “Heine told me, ‘I’m going to publish unpublished manuscripts, but it’s a pity: there’s no portrait of Sade, except in the family, where there was a little pastel of him, when he was twelve, dressed like a little gentleman; it’s all that has ever been published.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll make you one.’ I knew enough, I had read a lot of articles, the archives of the police in Marseilles, and Apollinaire’s book on Sade. Apollinaire said, ‘He is the freest man.'” This portrait began as a series of equally moving, if stark, sketches, where Man Ray plays with the shape of the head and especially the depth of the eyes.
Man Ray would go on to explore his favorite Sade novel, Aline et Valcour; ou, Le Roman philosophique (1795), Sade’s most overtly political work. It’s essentially an epistolary novel that recounts the story of two lovers, but is also an adventure narrative about travels through a cannibalistic, barbaric African kingdom, which is contrasted with a more utopian government in the South Pacific. Man Ray said, “I read all the novels of Sade, I have some rare editions, Juliette for example, and especially Aline and Valcour which is the most important, in my opinion, because it is all the political issues that are dealt with and very little pornography.” This particular painting is the most overtly surreal of the bunch, and is essentially a variation, or combination, of an image he created of a decapitated woman’s head underneath a glass dome for Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution, and an early photograph of a wooden sketching model.
This is the most abstract of these images, with no overt connection to Sade outside of its title, but the French writer’s work would also influence Man Ray’s photography—for which he is primarily remembered—in more subtle ways. While his surreal, photographic experiments and various forms of print work are celebrated, as well as his portraits of muses and friends like Lee Miller, his erotic photography hasn’t received the attention it deserves—possibly because of the sadomasochistic nature of some of it.
Much has already been written about the Surrealist obsession with and use of the female form, which is often seen as misogynistic in nature. It certainly celebrates a symbolic function of womanhood, rather than an attempt to realistically portray women or their experiences. Dave Bate writes, “The female nude stands in for the image of the idealizing of love. She is love personified, the unattainable thing they crave in their ‘imagination.’” Some of Man Ray’s erotic photography represents the contradiction found throughout Surrealism, with the dream of idealized love always at odds with the fixation on violence and destruction. This is exemplified in Nu attaché (Tied Naked) from 1930.
These sadomasochistic experiments have recently been touched on in The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, written by Seabrook’s partner Marjorie Worthington and published by the wonderful Spurl Editions. Seabrook was a writer and an explorer of sorts, and was friends with many in the Surrealist circle. Man Ray photographed some of his sadomasochistic play with various women (including Man Ray’s then-partner and artistic collaborator, Lee Miller). Man Ray spoke of an apparently mundane encounter at Seabrook’s New York apartment: “In the middle of the floor sat a statuesque woman, like an odalisque, quite nude and decorated with strings of pearls, bracelets, and rings. He introduced her as his secretary, but she did not move or speak. He informed me that she was condemned to silence for twenty-four hours.”
Man Ray himself spoke, in his autobiography and throughout his art, of his own tendency towards sadomasochism, though he was not as overtly sadistic as Seabrook. In Please Touch: Dada and Surrealist Objects After the Readymade, Janine A. Mileaf writes, “Man Ray’s autobiography conforms to the contracts of the confession by revealing his sexual proclivities and professing a tendency towards sadomasochism, but his art object exceeds the codified narrative of violent eroticism presented in his text.” My favorite of all his Sadeian works is this early photograph, Prayer, from 1930.
Like Monument à D.A.F. de Sade, it is a simple image that uses the nude female form to suggest depravity, blasphemy, and decadence while actually showing very little. The woman is bent, perhaps kneeling in supplication and prayer, but the implication is that prayer and sexual penetration may be conflated. An truly radical atheist, willing to die for his philosophical convictions (a real possibility in 18th century France), part of Sade’s function as a liberator is in his extreme rejection of religion and conventional morality. These are the central qualities that drew the Surrealists to him and that come through quite powerfully in Man Ray’s work—particularly, for me, in Prayer.
And these works still have the power to shock and offend. A recent example includes a 2014 Musee d’Orsay exhibit on depictions of Sade and the Sadeian in art that caused somewhat of a scandal. Laurence des Cars, one of the curators, said, “Sade’s influence has been enormous in every sphere of Modernist art. His aim was to destroy every illusion surrounding human sexuality, be it historical, moral or religious, which inspired artists to look at the body in a new way.”