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Surrealism, History and Revolution

Simon Baker

This book is a new account of the surrealist movement in France between the two world wars. It examines the uses that surrealist artists and writers made of ideas and images associated with the French Revolution, describing a complex relationship between surrealism’s avant-garde revolt and its powerful sense of history and heritage. Focusing on both texts and images by key figures such as Louis Aragon, Georges Bataille, Jacques-André Boiffard, André Breton, Robert Desnos, Max Ernst, Max Morise, and Man Ray, this book situates surrealist material in the wider context of the literary and visual arts of the period through the theme of revolution. It raises important questions about the politics of representing French history, literary and political memorial spaces, monumental representations of the past and critical responses to them, imaginary portraiture and revolutionary spectatorship. The study shows that a full understanding of surrealism requires a detailed account of its attitude to revolution, and that understanding this surrealist concept of revolution means accounting for the complex historical imagination at its heart.


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Chapter Five - The unacceptable face of the French Revolution 231


231 Chapter Five The unacceptable face of the French Revolution The subject of this chapter, its ‘unacceptable face’, is the Marquis de Sade. If this seems more like an admission than a declaration of intent, then it is an acknowledgement of the difficulty of discussing Sade in any context. Consider, for example, the reservations expressed by Otto Flake in 1930: I did not embark upon this study of the life and work of the Marquis de Sade without some qualms. It was not the consciousness of lacking qualifications that worried me, for one need be neither doctor nor psychiatrist to illuminate this theme. Rather it seemed that today, when the demand for a biography has called into being what amounts to a special industry, the motive of one who singles out for examination one of the most unpleasant individuals in history might well be suspect. 1 Otto Flake was in fact a doctor and he would presumably therefore have been considered immune from the moral risks that studying Sade was thought to entail. 2 Flake’s qualms, however, were well-founded, suggesting that we should remain suspicious of any motives for singling Sade out (including our own). In the context of Georges Bataille’s suggestion that ‘to admire de Sade is to diminish the force of his ideas’, both motive and response implicate the critic in the construction of a volatile subject. 3 If Bataille was correct, then Sade 1 O. Flake, The Marquis de Sade with a postscript on Restif de la...

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