PARIS — What could the Marquis de Sade and Alberto Giacometti possibly have in common? In the late 18th century, de Sade, an avowed sociopath, wrote pornographic novels set in aristocratic France. More than 200 years later, Alberto Giacometti, holed up in a cluttered studio, sculpted skeletal portraits reflecting war-ravaged Europe.
By putting these outwardly disparate artists into dialogue, the Giacometti Institute’s exhibition, Giacometti/Sade: Cruel Objects of Desire, showcases the sculptor’s erotic drawings and abstract sculptures while pulling back the curtain on a crucial chapter in French literary history, in which a revival of the Marquis de Sade’s writings in the early 20th century served as an incitement for the Surrealist movement in the 1920s and ’30s.
Giacometti/Sade posits that the same groundswell also swept up the Swiss-born Alberto Giacometti, who as a student in 1922 had resettled in Paris at the impressionable age of 21.
Nestled on a quiet street in Montparnasse, the Institute features the sculptor’s reconstructed Paris studio as well as a reading room, bringing visitors into immediate contact with documents and artifacts that shaped Giacometti’s outlook, as well as his studio notes and writings.
To document the era’s Sade-induced fever, the exhibition’s vitrines contain archival publications that reflect the Marquis’s newfound relevance – glosses, poems, manifestos, and treatises by a Who’s Who of French Modernism, from poets René Char and Paul Éluard to public intellectuals as divergent as Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Born in 1740, Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade — a name synonymous with cruel sex, enshrined in the very concept of “sadism” — was practically erased from cultural memory throughout the 1800s. In the early 1900s, poet Guillaume Apollinaire and then French editor Maurice Heine helped to publish – and also republish — the ex-convict’s long-suppressed texts, including a first-ever edition of the colossal 120 Days of Sodom (1904), penned while de Sade was imprisoned for blasphemy and violent, sexual crimes, and a newly unearthed, original version of Justine (1930).
De Sade’s fictions shred religious morals, familial taboos, and all other laws regulating sex; his extremes galvanized a new generation of writers and thinkers in France who viewed The Enlightenment as having produced a civilization that runs on moral hypocrisy, state violence, and robotic capitalism. The Surrealists craved a cultural rebirth that would that would be based on eros, instinct, and imagination, energies epitomized by de Sade, whom Apollinaire dubbed “the freest spirit that has ever existed.”
The young Giacometti’s sentimental education primed him for de Sade. In Paris, he’d been immersed in libertinism, which included a stormy relationship with Denise Maisonneuve, who introduced the artist to cutting-edge French literature such as the work of Comte de Lautréamont. Prompted by his friend André Breton, Giacometti first read de Sade in 1933, an experience he records in a diary entry. Though none of the sculptor’s artworks name de Sade as a source, studio notes and sketches ruminate on seduction, idolatry, and fetishism.
Many fevered images depict sadomasochism and voyeurism. The automatic drawings in “Sketches” (1933) allude to spectatorship, as disembodied human eyes appear among nipples, breasts, and torsos; “Copy After Donatello: Judith and Holofernes” (1935-37) replicates the famous Renaissance sculpture of the Biblical scene, in which the vanquished general awaits decapitation from Judith’s upraised sword; in the ink study and subsequent sculpture “Mother and Daughter” (1933), a fully dressed mother holds hands with a naked daughter, allowing sexual domination to color an otherwise innocent moment of maternal love. Taken together, these private studio notes and graphic drawings seem to have cleared the psychological ground for Giacometti as he planned out his early sculptures.
The abstract three-dimensional works of the late 1920s and early ‘30s reference latent sexuality and bodily contact, using totemic motifs drawn from traditional African and Oceanic art, which were still popular with the Paris avant-garde. In “Point to the Eye” (1931-32) a narrow truncheon, a stand-in for a phallus, aims its sharp end at a miniaturized head that could itself be a symbolic sex organ. From another perspective, it could be an abstract reenactment of visual longing in which the slender, tapered baton traces the trajectory of a gaze. Evoking foreplay, “Suspended Ball” (1930-31) contains a dangling white sphere hitched to a metal frame as it hovers close to — though never making contact with — a white, supine crescent.
De Sade’s link between the homicidal impulse and copulation might inform Giacometti’s most disturbing work, “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932), which abstractly depicts a female body with legs splayed as she twists and bends backward. Other violent sculptures suggest the bizarre contraptions and scenes of bondage in de Sade’s stories. In “Cage” (1930-31) a semiabstract human form, hemmed in by protective shields, is terrorized by claw-like protuberances.
“There is no better way to know death,” de Sade writes, “than to link it with some licentious image.” And the sculptor may have had this formula in mind when he created the series Disagreeable Object (1931-32). These dildo-like forms, arcing at varied angles and studded with spikes, are the explicit centerpieces of the exhibition. One of the biggest of the group serves as a prop in Man Ray’s portrait photograph of a topless Émilie Carlu (aka “Lili”) who cradles the enormous “Disagreeable Object,” gazing down at it with cool disinterest, as if Giacometti’s phallic sculpture were an exotic pet.
Though the artist channels de Sade’s scenes of deprivation through sculptures built around wires, barbs and protrusions, the most memorable works correspond to the writer’s interest in erotic plenitude. In the sculpture “Reclining Woman Who Dreams” (1929), the sleeping body is symbolized by two parallel, undulating horizontal fronds joined at opposite ends by studs anchored to a platform. The sleeper’s creativity, liberated by dreams, coincides with her defenselessness. The mental images unleashed in dreams, represented by the sculptor’s rivets, breach her slumbering body, mimicking coitus and substantiating her unconscious imagination.
These irrational forces, given free rein by de Sade’s characters, proved to the Surrealists that our unceasing desires remake the actual, given world so thoroughly that the very concept of “reality” is finally meaningless. Dissociating fantasy from fact — the goal of philosophy and psychology — was, in the Surrealist worldview, impossible. And although Giacometti’s early sculptures explore how eroticism playfully undercuts “reality,” he would cut ties with the Surrealist Movement by 1935.
Yet even as his art became more figurative, he never relinquished Surrealism’s Sadean idea that any living body partakes in its own haunting unreality, a realm encapsulated by the unimaginable specter of its death, a parsing manifested in the pair of sketchbook drawings from 1951, labeled “Sketches of a Woman and a Man Wielding a Sword,” in which a naked woman lounges with legs spread while, on the facing page, a man ominously brandishes a long blade.
In Giacometti’s post-Surrealist sculptures, represented here by the lithe, naked, and steadfast “Standing Woman” (1952), his earlier sly, nonfigurative eroticism is transformed into existential, or ontological, sadomasochism. That vision, every bit as merciless as the cruelties catalogued in de Sade’s fictions, isolates the human against vast, encumbering space — helpless subjects evaporating at the whim of an indifferent Creator.
Giacometti/Sade: Cruel Objects of Desire continues at Institut Giacometti (5, Rue Victor Schoelcher, Paris, France) through February 9. The exhibition is curated by Christian Alandete and Serena Bucalo-Mussely.