Les Sables d'Olonne

Georges Bataille

Musee de l'Abbaye Sainte-Croix

It was at the seaside resort of Les Sables d’Olonne that philosopher, Georges Bataille began Les larmes d’Eros (The tears of Eros) in the summer of 1959. Ambitiously conceived as an illustrated history of eroticism, this book was to have been, in Bataille’s words, “more remarkable than any I’ve published so far.” It was his last, completed against the odds of illness in April 1961. Three decades later, Les larmes d’Eros has literally become a kind of “pre-text” for this two-part artistic homage, aimed at tracing the echoes of “Bataillian thought” in the visual arts of his time and ours.

The retrospective portion of this exhibit excels twice over. First because of the impact, individual and collective, of works by the generation of artists extending from Pablo Picasso to Francis Bacon by way of Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, André Masson, Jean Fautrier, Hans Bellmer, Pierre Klossowski, and Balthus. And again because of the intimate glimpse of a historical moment it provided; these artists were not simply Bataille’s contemporaries (or the ones he cites in Les larmes d’Eros) but his close collaborators and friends. Masson, who illustrated Bataille’s early erotic novels Histoire de l’Oeil (The story of the eye, 1928), and L’anus solaire (The solar anus, 1931) and worked with him on the “para-Surrealist” review Acéphale, 1937-57, was also his brother-in-law and lifelong friend. Introduced by Michel Leiris in 1924, the two men made their way in and around (and ultimately out of) André Breton’s Surrealist circle along with Miró, Ernst, Giacometti, Bellmer, and Picasso (who later joined Bataille at the bullfights in the south of France).

In this exhibit, Masson takes pride of place with a vast array of paintings, the illustrations he did for Bataille’s writings, and various other drawings and engravings, all of them charged with the carnal energy that led Bataille to characterize his friend as “the painter who best expressed the profound and agonizing religious values of eroticism.” Picasso, Bataille’s “toreador of painting,” is represented by a satyric portrait head from the ’30s, a few lusty drawings, and two late works exuding Eros and death. From Bacon (in Bataille’s time “a young English painter among the most important of his generation”), there is a series of dizzying portraits and self-portraits and an even more dizzying bullfight in orange, pink, and white.

“Essentially,” Bataille writes in Les larmes d’Eros “the painting I’m speaking about is in turmoil, it’s alive...it’s on fire.” Thirty years later, the description still holds; the turmoil, the fire, the will to excess are palpable, and often aggressively so. If the shock value has worn off, the historical contours have inevitably become clearer, and it is hard not to see Bataille’s impulses in the particular contexts of Europe before, during, and after the excesses of World War II. But there is another striking particularity to the selection of works in this show, though one that is more curatorial than historical: with the exception of a lone drawing by Dorothea Tanning (clearly included because it was dedicated to Bataille), all the works included are by men. What is curious about this selection, besides the somewhat abbreviated perspective it offers on matters erotic, is that there were so many women artists, relatively speaking, in Bataille’s milieu, beginning with Tanning and Léonor Fini, both of whom are amply represented in Les larmes d’Eros.

Even more puzzling, and unfortunate, is the fact that the exhibit’s contemporary epilogue is similarly construed as a male preserve, with paintings by Malcolm Morley, Eric Fischl, François Rouan, Jean-Michel Alberola, and Vincent Corpet posited as examples of Bataille’s artistic legacy. It is hard to find the turmoil, much less the fire, in these terribly cerebral approaches to excess. This may be very post-Modern, but when Eros and Thanatos are in nightly competition with the sex and violence on TV, when advertising has made an industry out of visual seduction, transgression is elsewhere, and notably (as the work of contemporary artists like Rebecca Horn, Michèle Blondel, or Kiki Smith shows), where women as traditional objects of desire express desires of their own.

Miriam Rosen