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Freedom or evil

“Sade” explores the aesthetic, philosophical and political implications of libertine writer Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814) in contemporary culture.

During his lifetime, Sade faced repression, imprisonment and censure and just barely escaped the guillotine. He spent 27 years in prison and ended his career organizing theatrical productions at the Charenton lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Paris. Nevertheless, the rediscovery and publication of his work in the 20th century allowed new generations of writers and authors to adopt his transgressive philosophy and his revolutionary message as a means of liberation from social and moral norms. While some see him as a controversial, revolutionary and liberating figure, others see him as perverse and corrupting. The dilemma is whether to read Sade as a philosopher to be taken seriously or a novelist who simply creates extreme fantasies. To overcome this conflict, we can see Sade as presenting us with a challenge: through fiction, he invites us to imagine the limits and dangers of placing desire above all else. Taking on the role of a guide or intermediary, he asks us whether his works represent a liberating, subversive philosophy or an evil philosophy that shows the excessive, violent dimension of the human experience.

This exhibit focuses on the multiple echoes and incarna­tions of a controversial cultural icon: it addresses the dif­ferent ways of understanding the author’s work. By look­ing at the reception of Sade by artists and intellectuals and their presence in mass culture, we can understand the impact of his controversial writings. The abundance of cultural productions that refer directly or indirectly to Sade is a symptom of the fascination, discomfort and ambivalence his ideas provoked in the 20th century, his subversive potential and the degree to which his work still resonates today. This exhibit invites the public to review stereotypes — like those associated with the term “sadism” — and to reflect on how Sade can provoke unease or horror while simultaneously being hailed as the personification of the revolution and represented in many aspects of contemporary culture.

This exhibit traces the gradual turn towards Sade’s transgressive ideas at times of socio-historical change and crisis over the last century. The first half of the 20th century witnessed a virtual cult to Sade that served as a voice of resistance and a point of reference for debates on freedom and evil. The second half witnessed the popularization of this figure and the use of his con­troversial role to explore the limits of the representation of eroticism while also contributing to the liberation of non-normative sexual practices like BDSM. In the 21st century, references to Sade have been a part of the re­flection on gender categories and have been invoked by queer artists and intellectuals.

This journey goes from the celebration of the author by certain fundamental avant-garde figures (Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Bataille, Salvador Dalí, Toyen and Man Ray, among others) and the critical views of Pier Paolo Pasolini to the reflections of modern artists from around the world who discuss freedom of expression, the transmutation of gender roles, the institutionaliza­tion of terror and the role of pornographic imagination in consumer society. The exhibit includes the documen­tation of the historic performances of Jean Benoît and Jean-Jacques Lebel, photographic projects like those of Marcelo Brodsky, Robert Mapplethorpe, Pierre Mo­linier and Susan Meiselas, as well as literature, cinema, comics and videos of interviews with philosophers and researchers. Installations by artists like Laia Abril (On Rape, 2020), Paul Chan (Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009), Shu Lea Cheang (Sade X, 2019), Teresa Margolles (PM 2010, 2012), Joan Morey (Gritos & Susurros, 2009) and Kara Walker (8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, 2005) are presented alongside new pro­ductions by Joan Fontcuberta, Domestic Data Stream­ers and the filmed staging of a fragment of the work Le retour de Sade by Bernard Noël (directed by Guillem Sánchez Garcia with performances by Clàudia Abellán and Joel Cojal).