(Paris.) Long ago I gave up visiting the Musée d'Orsay, and decided to consider it permanently closed. This I did not for the same reasons as other art historians, who frown at dubious management decisions (a Gerome exhibition...), but mainly for Orsay’s door policy. Acting like a wannabe fancy night club, the museum created waiting lines of record-length, and If I spend four hours standing in the sun/rain/blizzard, I am not capable of visiting any museum - certainly not one stretching over six levels in a former train station. Right opposite the Orsay lies the Museum of the French Foreign Legion (this indeed exists), and I always had the suspicion, this waiting procedure were part of a physical exam. I was almost sure that upon passing the threshold, a good-natured drill sergeant would approach me to ask if I were not by accident interested in renouncing my native country’s legislation and undertake extensive adventure trips into the world's most fascinating regions, all in the pursuit of France's glory. I was sure, that after waiting for hours I would not have the slightest reluctance left in me to shoot and kill. Anybody. Everybody. Anytime. Everywhere.
There were also unconfirmed rumours about paramilitary forces who took care of any tourist daring to carry a camera (after all, they need to sell “their” art on postcards, catalogues, T-Shirts, shopping bags, etc.).
What in the world could possibly induce me to reverse my decision and subject myself to the trial? What is the one force stronger than even the survival instinct?
You nail it: Sex. (And I have to admit: November is the best month to visit a museum in Paris; choose a weekday morning and with a bit of luck you may enjoy it in - relative - calm.) When the Orsay said “let’s talk about Sade” - not the 1980s R’n’B singer, obviously -, I answered “why not”. Not because of any psychopathic phantasies, mind you, but for a sincere interest in what kind of artworks would be presented, and how.
The difference between throw away porn pseudo-literature and the Marquis de Sade is this: When de Sade subtitled La philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom) with the words “La mère prescrira à sa fille” (“To be recommended from mother to daughter”), this is a blatant provocation no less today than it was two hundred and twenty years ago, given that the whole book alternates between describing the pleasures of anal sex with 14 year old girls and elaborate essays on why this is all right, just, and necessary in a free society. Whereas on the other hand, modern parents don’t hesitate to present their offspring with grey shaded trash for Christmas. The trivial is never challenging, and a challenge never trivial.
A French scholar once called de Sade “the eternal revolutionary”, and he was, he truly was, the ultimate challenge, the ultimate “but” of liberty.
We should not omit that beside Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and the whole Impressionist bunch, Orsay Museum’s main attraction is Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde (that genital close-up painted for a Turkish dignitary). Last year, a remarkably un-famous French artist earned great publicity with a performance that involved (/was limited to) her recreating the painting on the floor right next to it. Naturally, the Orsay Museum was not informed in advance, and very surprised.
Thus I entered, and the drill sergeant must have taken his day off, or gotten shot somewhere, a desert, a jungle, the banlieue.
Our civilisation has made it through the seventies, and all sexual excess has not only been trivialised, but extensively ridiculed since. When visiting the Orsay Museum, part of me was whistling Zappa (“I can take about an hour on the tower of power // As long as I gets a little golden shower”), while another part kept trying to recall the unpronounceable code word to stop the Amsterdam anal drilling in that great college comedy Euro Trip. I also thought of a good friend’s wife who works in a hospital in Germany’s rural north, and who can tell mesmerizing stories about objects that fit into lonely farmers’ lower backs, but unfortunately not out again without medical assistance.
The exhibition is called Attaquer le Soleil (Attack the Sun, rather not referring to people whom the sun shines out of the – ok, that’s enough), and starts with short clips from movies that in some way or other are influenced by the dirty marquis, from Bunuel to Pasolini. Despite the darkness, this part is harmless, and most people hurry on quickly. With ever new visitors entering, there’s not much space to rest and watch anyway. It follows a who’s who of art history: Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, Goya, ..., along with some second rate artists. They all are invited to the orgy, although in many cases I doubt they would know the reasons why. It turns out, that de Sade is merely (ab)used as a poster boy, the star, the “new face” of a publicity campaign. There are citations on the wall, true, and books in vitrines. But the paintings and sculptures are those that happened to be available (because in Orsay’s collection or at befriended institutions) and feature some nudity and/or violence. Mythological scenes, biblical tragedies, couples and wars. Chaste portraits meet early close up photography. Seen for itself it’s not a bad collection, with exceptions: Too much emotion ruins every artwork, there’s a thin line between the tragic and the comical (we’re looking at you, Nicolas-André Monsiau). And just to pose the question: Does the curator read homoerotic allusions into David holding up Goliath’s severed head, or what in the world has induced her to include this painting of Aubin Vauet’s (one of the minor, regional, artists)?
Direct connections to sadism are rare: A bondage series from Man Ray, photographs of body parts found in a suitcase and of people condemned.to public torture and execution throughout the world. Appearing without a warning, these historic documents are only the more shocking. But overall, the curator seems to have fallen for a rather simple chain of ideas, namely: “People like sex. - Violence is a human reality. - De Sade combined both. - So did artists. - Conclusion: These artists are influenced by de Sade!”
I’m not at all sure about this.
If the plan was to present de Sade as having condensed latent phantasies, and writing about the dark side in everyone of us, the exhibition fails. The only artist here who evokes this uncanny appeal of evil is Jan Luyken (1649-1712). His drawings engross the spectator, but trying to turn the eyes away as his conscience orders him to do, he is hypnotized, seized by the urge to absorb every detail. Here we sense the attraction that pull(ed) masses to executions or gawkers to a car crash. If violence and the conscious infliction of pain is deeply human, it is most closely connected with another human force: curiosity (that not only killed the cat, but tortured the mouse). The motive for crossing a border is to learn what lies behind.
But sadism cannot be equalled to sexuality – or mere nudity - as the exhibition wants to make us believe.
To end with a compliment: They really know their business at Orsay Museum, from the gift shops positioned at the exit of each exhibition and theme room to the room climate (a science in itself: find the equilibrium between costs of overheating and additional revenue from dehydrated visitors driven into cafés and restaurants).
Sex sells, and the Pinacotheque de Paris follows straight with not one, but two shows on the art of copulation: Geishas vs. Kama Sutra, that sounds promising.
Visitors are welcomed with a warning: these exhibitions are not advisable for the easily offended, and especially not for minors. Who would have guessed?
Feeling still fresh and strong, I decided to commence with the acrobatics.
The Pinacotheque hands out free audio-guides, and we’ve complained about them in the past: people with audio-guides tend to block an artwork for a much prolonged time. Dear audio-guided people: Wouldn’t it be possible to take a step back and listen from a distance? No? Ok, fine, not my day. With some (/a lot of) patience you may still succeed in seeing everything, and not only because seeing a part is like seeing all of it. No, the exhibition is great, maybe a bit repetitive but that’s fine.
But let’s start from the beginning, then advance slowly. The Hindu Pantheon resembles the Greek insofar as all too humanly gods follow the same hobbies as us mortals (of course, Brahman as a principle/supreme being, non personal and omnipersonal, stands above these trifles; but you wouldn’t expect a lecture on the Upanishads in this article, would you?). The Kama Sutra has been written between 400 BC and 200 AD by Vatsyayana, himself somehow contradictorily believed to have lived between the 1st and the 6th Century AD. “Kama” translates to “desire”, and a “Sutra” is a (collection of) aphorisms, or in wider sense an instructive text. It provides much helpful advise, and includes – but is not limited to – the famous bedroom yoga. The Kama Sutra does not really belong in the yoga context, but the very word “yoga” can be translated as “to add”, “to join” or “to unite”, and that’s quite a meaningful coincidence.
In this exhibition, we find stonen temple decorations and illustrations of gods and men (and most importantly: women!) and sometimes – only slightly less weird when you think of reincarnation - animals, all happily procreating around. Most exhibits date from the 19th Century, with exceptions reaching back as far as the 10th Century. All this is definitely not influenced by de Sade. Following the book, the exhibition is separated into different chapters and offers a written summary for each, but you wouldn’t notice if you only regard the exhibits. They never change. One may feel tempted to ask if there was always a spiritual/doctrinal intent, or whether some of these paintings did not rather serve as precursors of not Playboy (too tame), but Hustler Magazine; an early internet so to say.
Visitors don’t learn much about the technics of applied Kama Sutra, if you came for this kind of instructions, you will leave unsatisfied. There is one overview of the positions at the beginning (you can get it as a poster, but we’ve also joined it above; you’re welcome), and you may try to recognize them later. But how to move which body part in what order to arrive at the desired result without breaking or overstressing anything in the process is not explained. Personally, I even fail at meditation in the Lotus position, fully clothed.
A strange feature of the Kama Sutra lies in the fact that most positions seem only possible if the male partner is physically uninterested in the proceedings (not even de Sade’s antithesis, Count Sacher-Masoch would find pleasure in the otherwise inevitable penile fractures).
One compartment announces to be different. A text tells about homosexuality in the Kama Sutra context, and next to it stands a wall with peepholes. Half expecting to see a Bollywood movie, or just any Bollywood Movie Star, I risked a glance – to find photographs of the same exhibits that are everywhere else in the show and decidedly heterosexual. This was reassuring, yet confusing at the same time.
Sadly, one great mystery remains unsolved: how does Indian food, beside the Kama Sutra best identified with the country, go along with the gymnastics? Indulging in these activities after a genuine curry carries the non negligible risk of all the wrong body fluids - and gases - to escape from all the wrong orifices. Not to talk of chilli peppers setting the mucous membranes on fire.
In the later rooms, some visitors, male which is one the one hand surprising, one the other not, can be observed yawning. And yes, it is repetitive. Not even that un-famous French artist has shown up so far, and the exhibition runs for more than a month already. Maybe the story could have been told in less exhibits. Maybe (maybe) three minutes wouldn’t be enough, but as it is, a visit takes two hours, and that’s too much. The explanatory texts on the other hand are great.
In the Pinacothèque’s second venue a few metres down the street, we are invited to relax with the Geishas: L’art de l’amour au temps des Geishas (The Art of Love in the Age of the Geishas). Focusing on the Edo period (1603-1867), this brings more of the same, less acrobatic. Judging to these exhibitions, one major difference between India and Japan is the size of the male organ. More probably the depictions are exaggerated, and as they were not intended for a female audience, we could imagine a compensation reflex on behalf of the average Asian man as the underlying motive. Needless to say, the artistic quality is overwhelming, the Grand Palais really missed out on this part of Hokusai’s oeuvre in their recent show. The historical overview culminates in dirty mangas that continue the tradition today.
It’s refreshing to find the limits of art defined much differently than in European tradition. Could it be, that in the end, our occidental porn culture is but a massive catching-up? Christianity may well have been the prudest religion ever seen on earth, and medieval short stories (those were quite direct, though) were as far as it went under the Vatican Taliban.
These exhibitions are not bad and even educative, at least for those of us who speak French. None of the explanatory texts are translated, not into English, nor Japanese or Hindi. There are the multilingual audio guides, but please don’t use them, or if you do: with consideration.
If you’re a tourist looking for a stimulating show to replace a dinner of champagne and oysters, the Pinacothèque de Paris is a great choice and superior to the Crazy Horse. But if you’d like to involve your brain too (male readers: that other, smaller, more useless, brain up in our heads), there might be better options.
Having reached the end of this article, dear reader, is a proof of great stamina. And if you can still hold up the attention: they say there’s a Museum of Erotica at Pigalle.
Sade – Attaquer le soleil, Musée d’Orsay, 14 October 2014-25 January 2015
Le Kama-Sutra - Spiritualité et érotisme dans l’art indien, Pinacothèque de Paris, 02 October 2014-11 January 2015
L’art de l’amour au temps des Geishas, Pinacothèque de Paris, 06 November 2014-15 February 2015
Art - Exhibitions
by christian hain | Wednesday, 03 December 2014