For the surrealists the eighteenth-century aristocrat the Marquis de Sade was the ultimate literary rebel. In his lifetime de Sade had been imprisoned for his sexual activities. One hundred years after his death, his books were still regarded as scandalous and banned in France. He remained, in the admiring words of André Breton, one of the ‘great undesirables’, a champion of sexual and political liberty.

A number of surrealist writers produced their own erotic texts, often accompanied by drawings by their artist friends. Sometimes overtly pornographic, they were published in small editions and often anonymously to avoid censorship and prosecution. The surrealists also conducted surveys and held group discussions about sexual habits in an attempt to understand the nature of eroticism and what it revealed about human nature.

Eroticism was the theme of a major surrealist exhibition held in 1959. Designed by Breton and Marcel Duchamp, it was arranged as a journey through a series of feminine spaces. Visitors entered the gallery through a ‘love grotto’, a dark cavernous tunnel that led to a rose-coloured chamber where the ceiling seemed to breathe in and out. The recording of women’s orgasmic sighs, made specially for that exhibition and not heard publicly since, is played in this space.