Sublime Scenes: Saturno Buttò and Jeanne de Berg

Caelum Meretur Vulnerum Crudelitas II, 2009, Saturno Buttò.

Caelum Meretur Vulnerum Crudelitas II, 2009, Saturno Buttò.


I’m not exactly sure when I discovered the art of Saturno Buttò, but I do remember how. After a discussion with an artist friend about an erotic art idea, I googled “erotic art Renaissance style” (which was not the idea), and up popped dozens of thumbnail images in red, gold, orange, black. Beautiful nude bodies, rendered in Caravaggio-like high-key lighting, almost photo-realistically rendered—all doing terribly kinky things to each other.

Who was this?

I clicked on the artist’s site—there were no other artists’ images within initial that search, btw—and wow. More research was clearly needed.

All but the most backward philistine or fundamentalist (of any religion) knows that mere nudity in art does not equate to pornography, nor even “erotic art.” But while Buttò does not create mere figurative art—these people are not just lying around nude; they’re doing things, kinky things—he does not paint highly skilled porn, either. His paintings are most definitely not stills from YouPorn, copied with meticulous care in oils. In fact, there is no overt sex going on in any of his images. Unlike so much other erotic art I admire, however skillfully executed, Buttò’s work is not intended to merely arouse, perhaps not even primarily arouse. Yet overt sexuality, and therefore by extension arousal, is indeed a heavy component. His work is not simply “erotic art,” but it is clearly erotic.

The nude or almost-nude characters in his paintings are often gathered in groups, holding the paraphernalia of religious rituals, posed in formal postures, and often imposing recurring instruments—knives, candles, arrows—upon each other’s naked bodies. They sometimes have gold leaf halos behind their heads. Clearly, even without reading any artist’s statements, religion and its representation is an important aspect in this body of work.

Inner Dark, Station IV, 2009, Saturno Buttò.

Inner Dark, Station IV, 2009, Saturno Buttò.

But consider the Inner Dark series of some fourteen paintings (my personal favorites): a woman in black underwear and wearing a thick leather mask with ram’s horns strips and binds another woman, holds a knife to her neck while bound, cuts her thigh, engages in some kind of hypodermic needle and even enema play, and finally uses her sexually, straddling her face while the sub seems to get no satisfaction for herself. Their faces are rarely visible—they are either hidden behind masks (or horse blinders), or turned away, or, well, buried between the Domme’s legs.

Inner Dark, Station VII, 2006, Saturno Buttò.

Inner Dark, Station VII, 2006, Saturno Buttò.

Clearly not an overtly “religious” message! Yet the series of paintings is presented as though something almost sacred is going on here—not just the meticulousness of the artwork, the care it must have taken to painstakingly create these images; but the lighting of the original scene, the intensity of the subjects’ poses and predicaments. Even these (quite!) arousing images have the gravity and feeling of ritual, an element that, it quickly becomes apparent, is central to Buttò’s work.

In other paintings the aspect of ritual is even more upfront. Figures are arranged in formal groupings, cruel objects in hand, usually pressed against skin—there is much knife play, in Buttò’s work. Sometimes text, in Gothic fonts, accompanies the imagery; it all has the look of Catholic iconography.

Bad Nurses, 2009, Saturno Buttò.

Bad Nurses, 2009, Saturno Buttò.

Other motifs recur: medical “play,” the appearance of unpleasant instruments such as surgical clamps and scalpels, more often than not acting on female bodies (unlike much of his more “religious”-oriented imagery, in which men suffer about as often as women). Ram’s horns on women’s heads, acting as some strange organic form of bondage gear. Arrows, often. On the other hand, whips, crops, and more traditional BDSM devices for beating are noticeably absent.

Even in the occasional scenes of…I guess you’d call it “domesticity,” scenarios not so far out of everyday existence have a ritualistic feel—a semi-nude woman kneels and paints another’s toenails; a woman with a golden halo feeds another kneeling woman with her mouth pried open by a Whitehead gag.

Offeratorium, 2010, Saturno Buttò.

Offeratorium, 2010, Saturno Buttò.


Reading Butto`s statements and interviews, one gets the gist of his intentions. Heavily informed by religious—especially Catholic—tradition, his concern is with the contradictions of the human condition—body and soul, pleasure and pain, the heavenly and the corporeal, the beautiful and the grotesque. He is also concerned with how these apparent opposites both contrast and overlap:

Ecstasy and mystical sufferings such as pain and sexual pleasure always exist, I suppose. From my point of view, certain situations are closer together than you would normally think.1

Modernity vs. the ancient, one could also add to his list of opposites. How have attitudes toward the oh-so-proximate qualities of pleasure and pain changed, since the Byzantine and Renaissance periods from which his style of art is so influenced, regarding their visual representations? I am of the belief that there have always been a few of us who find such imagery, and activities, as intriguing as they are frightening:

The fetish references have to do with aesthetics, mostly. More complex is the theme of sadomasochism. I am interested in the human being in all that “body and mind” can contemplate, especially to overcome certain taboos. The delicate and controversial relationship between physicality and spirituality present in my works has deep roots, see for example the case of mystical ecstasies of some saints, even now I am not clear if the spiritual or sexual is more prevalent. The same could be said about certain S/M practices where sensations and feelings come together. Change only the starting point: In the first case the prayer ends with the mortification of the flesh, followed by ecstasy; in the second, the constraint and pain end up in a kind of orgasm/ecstasy. Ultimately it is still a search for oneself, through organic-chemical strategies, to arrive at an intimate truth.2

Buttò, then, sees deep and significant potential in the practices of BDSM, a direct descent from as well as permanent opposition to the depicted sufferings of the early Christian martyrs. The two are (and always have been?) powerful influences on each other:

There are episodes in the life of the Saints (see that of St. Teresa of Avila) that are emblematic of the “confusion” that generates between what is or should be a spiritual experience, and one that, however, is perceived as a physical desire to try “pleasure in pain.”3

As to how his style of painting is affected by this subject matter, he says:

A key difference between my work and the classic iconography can be seen in the approach to the image: In the past you started from the mystical view of the sacred theme and ended up encroaching into the erotic (I quote, for example, the San Sebastian by Guido Reni). I do the opposite: start from the erotic and physical experience to come to an end, so to speak, at the noblest [point].4

I am not interested in pain per se, but rather I am fascinated by the evocative force it assumes within the boundaries of popular culture. The iconographic imagery characterizing Western Catholic culture offers plenty of examples of images related to pain and suffering. This appears as a nearly compulsory step in a path towards catharsis, for saints and martyrs; and similarly, some of the erotic/sexual rituals involving pain introduce, in my opinion, a movement towards the übersinnlich (a form of pleasure overcoming mere sexuality), which is nothing but a mystic/ecstatic dimension.5

So. Rituals, then.




I am not exactly sure how I discovered the book Women’s Rites: Scenes from the Erotic Imagination by Jeanne de Berg, but I do remember when—about a year ago, while I was trying to figure out how to present and discuss Buttò’s work, and having trouble doing so. I believe I learned about it while reading this excellent article from Vanity Fair about Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the real-life name of both “Jeanne” and “Jean” de Berg, who wrote the 1956 erotic novella L’Image. While I had previously read L’Image in translation, and seen the 1975 film (which I will be reviewing next), I hadn’t yet heard of the other book under the female pseudonym.

Women’s Rites is a slender volume, not a novella nor even quite a collection of fictional stories—quite. Initially released in France as Cérémonies des Femmes in 1985 (twenty-nine years after L’Image), it is a series of recollections of erotic events, which may—or may not—be entirely true.

There are six vignettes in the book, as well as two brief meta-fictive “Reflections” that interrupt the recollections to ponder how and why the book was written.

Like Buttò’s work, calling it “erotica” is a bit of a misnomer; but also like Buttò’s work, I don’t know what else to call it.

The first two stories/accounts depict separate visitations to a rather shabby (this was the early 1980’s, remember) BDSM club in downscale New York City. The narrator—we’re never quite sure if the stories, told in the first person, are by Ms. Robbe-Grillet, Ms. Berg, or whom—is accompanied by a young female friend and the two engage in rather detached observations of the goings-on, small scenes played out by the club’s patrons. There are humiliations, whippings, beggings, all attracting a small crowd of observers before each little event ends and the watchers mull around until something new starts up.

These two accounts were not particularly satisfying, to me, nor did they seem so to the writer. She was wanting something different, something more, and so did I. After the first brief Reflection, on the inadequacies of the first attempt of capturing the next story, things get more interesting, as well as more in synchronicity with the Buttò artwork I was looking at and thinking about. (I love it when things like this happen.)

Sebastian Fellazio, 2005, Saturno Buttò.

Sebastian Fellazio, 2005, Saturno Buttò.

The third “story” is titled “The Martyrdom of Sebastian”—a source that figures largely in both Buttò and Berg, both creators returning to him frequently. The 3rd Century figure of Sebastian, who was martyred for betraying his military position to rescue early Christians, has been a source of erotic inspiration for centuries, ever since his bound, naked, and suffering body, pierced by arrows, was depicted by multiple Renaissance artists beginning in the late 15th Century. The image has long been a gay bondage icon, and not just a gay one, for that matter.

Buttò has one lovely painting of a female figure kneeling before a bound and naked man, her face in his crotch while she reaches up and thrusts arrows into his torso. It is titled Sebastiano Fellazio—“Fellated Sebastian.” There are others: the strange Cleaning Sebastian; more yet.

Cleaning Sebastian, 2005, Saturno Buttò.

Cleaning Sebastian, 2005, Saturno Buttò.

Ms. Robbe-Grillet, now in her 80s, has been a well-known dominatrix—though not a professional one—for decades. She has acolytes, mostly female, and has had devoted slaves, mostly, though certainly not entirely, male. She is known, among other things, for hosting “rites,” or “cérémonies” which consist, to my delight upon learning, of setting up and acting out the exact types of tableaux vivantes that are so lovingly depicted by Buttò. While Buttò paints them, Robbe-Grillet enacts them, and Berg, her alter ego, has written them down.

In Women’s Rites, these rites—rituals—are precise and premeditated, and very formalistic. No wild abandon, here. They always involve Berg as a mistress of ceremonies, preparing at length a borrowed space, controlling the show (though occasionally giving in to impulse), with one or two nude submissives as the focus, a guest or two or three, and usually some sort of naked male assistant to keep the whole thing moving along. Berg, in interview-style segments of several stories, recounts to the interviewer that she does not want a crowd to perform to; she wants small gatherings, a sacredness to the event, the mental space to take in the moment and perhaps veer off-script a bit. These are intensely private events.

In “Martyrdom of Sebastian”, she has the desire to sacrifice a young man. She will not use arrows, but…eggs.

Hey, not my kink, either. It goes back to Bataille, and a film titled Glissements progressifs du plaisir, and there’s no real point in going into it here. It all has to do with symbolisms, and they also make a hell of a humiliating mess when broken upon a nude body.

Bear with me—basically, she throws eggs at the guy as he stands before a large mirror, so he is exposed front and back. As I said, it didn’t turn me on much either, but she somehow makes the event sensual, sexual. The male is ordered to do things; the humbled male assistant (whom she cleverly named “Severin” for the evening) has to do things. Berg also cuts the man’s skin with a piece of broken glass from the bowl which held the eggs. But while it was all satisfying, by the time it was done, it wasn’t satisfying enough, for her. The event’s inadequacies stayed in her mind, and she becomes obsessed with staging another:

[Interviewer]: Weren’t you afraid it would be a “carbon copy?”

[Berg]: My present project is exactly that: re-stagings and variations of a ritual. That is what I just said to you when I used the musical metaphor of the theme and variations. I could also call it “repetition and difference,” “the same and yet not the same”—it’s a question of “turning” an image a little, in order to see… I am clearly aware that they are quite cerebral, these games […] the more so, in fact, as we are dealing with strange practices in which the taste for the “right move” mingles with the taste for esthetic compositions.

That is this collection in a nutshell—strange, cerebral, aesthetic. Not for everyone, perhaps, yet oddly fascinating to me.

Blade Lovers 2, 2015, Saturno Buttò.

Blade Lovers 2, 2015, Saturno Buttò.

The second attempt at whatever quality Berg is trying to harness involves a pretty young woman to accompany the same man, the same “Sebastian” as before. They are bound together, back to back, whipped. Eggs are thrown; the couple are a mess. Water sports, shall we say, are ordered and fulfilled (again, not my kink). They are ordered to have sex on the floor; the woman’s mouth is sexually used by one of the male guests. All this is done very precisely, very controlled, yet it is interesting that Berg’s memories of the evening are a bit scrambled, inadequate. She forgets certain episodes, the order of things. One of the things she likes to do is have everyone involved write down their versions of the experience and send them to her at a later date—she says the accounts are often radically different from her own memories, and each others’.

This book is obviously not mainstream erotica. In “Reflections 2,” Berg states:

I love black velvet, faded golds, dark reds in muted candlelight and clouds of incense; I love the precise curves of premeditated caresses, affected splendor, fluid displays, slow progressions to the point of stasis; venomous glances, white hands with lacquered fingernails, beauties from the Herodiad adorned with ancient jewels stretched out on moiré fabrics and lulled to sleep by the pernicious effluvium of their cloying perfumes.

She has just described nearly all of Buttò’s work. She continues:

Ceremonious simulations, improvised sacred rites; it is the premeditated, the theatrical that interests me, far removed from a more “shocking” eroticism…

Well, there’s an interesting term. It’s not just ceremony, the religiosity of it all, that she as well as Buttò are fond of: it’s the theatrical.

Nearly all of Berg’s rituals are little shows. In “The Seine,” she arranges a whipping on a quay alongside the river in Paris that is both private, hidden, and public: only the passengers of a passing tour boat can see the event in the ship’s roving spotlight.

The final two vignettes become more intense. In “The Mark,” the “Sebastian” boy is back, this time to be burned on the chest with a cigarette just above a set of her initials she has had a tattoo artist imprint upon him.

She researches and rehearses everything—the exact length the cigarette should be (long ones keep bending), the time it takes for the cigarette to burn down to the proper length.

Everything is choreographed. There is a lovely scene in which one of the guests, a delicate, Louise Brooks look-alike, is told to strip as well, and to lay against Sebastian’s back while he is on his hands and knees. She is whipped, and the detailed description—every description in this book is meticulously detailed, it’s what this book is—warms the cockles of my heart.

Finally, Sebastian kneels and waits for the cigarette to burn down, and then:

With a groan, the sacrificial victim bends as if struck by a hard gust of wind. I go with that motion, and the ember stays fixed to his chest. I am quite calm. Beginning in my hand, a brutal wave of pleasure passes through me. My breath stopped by his hoarse whimpering, I experience the intense and overwhelming frenzy of the huntress reaching her prey… Now you are mine, for a few more seconds…

A little billionaire slap ‘n’ tickle, this book ain’t.

The Sacrifice, 2013, Saturno Buttò.

The Sacrifice, 2013, Saturno Buttò.

In the final story, “The Sacrifice,” we meet Camille, a boy “with a chambermaid’s name” who is to be the servant, to undress and bathe the three female guests; when his sexual assignments are sadly…quick, he is punished with a harsh spanking. One of the guests does not understand the power dynamic, and feels badly about beating him too severely. Berg replies that if anything, he was acting sad because he was pampered, and recites one of the coolest and most revelatory lines I’ve read:

You absolutely must believe that Sisyphus is happy!

Nice. That is perhaps the best, or at least most concise, explanation of the masochistic mindset I’ve ever read.

The man she had earlier whipped at the river, whom she simply refers to as “The Black,” arrives after Camille is sent home and he is told to strip, and there is much foreplay between him and the guests.

In this story, there is blood play—with pins, with a switchblade she’d bought in New York, fully sterilized. She makes small cuts on his chest, inserts multiple pins into his skin just far enough to stick straight out. (Both of which Robbe-Grillet is known for.)

Suddenly, she gives in to the sudden urge to stab—right into his thigh, which misses any major arteries but continues bleeding. The hypnotic atmosphere of the ritual is brought to a halt. They wrap the wound and try to continue; two of them try to scrub out the blood stains in the rug in this borrowed house. He keeps bleeding.

There is a reference to Saint Irene tending to Sebastian—he wasn’t killed by the arrows, but in a later clubbing—and I’ve (incorrectly) had it in my head for the last year that Berg referred to the Georges de la Tour painting as well, probably because I googled it at the time while discovering the cool connections between Buttò and Berg:

St. Sebastian Tended by St. Irene, c. 1639, Georges de la Tour.

It looks remarkably like a Buttò, yes?

Anyway, The Black is taken to the hospital and reality intrudes upon the private rite, the self-contained world in which it takes place. There is worry—about his welfare, about hospital staff asking questions, about the police. They drive in the rain across Paris to get him there, and the mood is completely different than in the rest of the book.

Reality has intruded upon the text, a set of narratives which we do not know to be true in the first place. The self-contained space has been invaded. But is this part of the story true?

The story, and the book, end in just such a pondering.



So, we have definite superficial similarities between the work of Buttò and Berg—gorgeously portrayed, whether in images or words, formalistic tableaux vivantes of beautiful nude humans, worlds that seem to exist in their own spaces, separate from ours.

Their goals differ, however—Buttò’s expressed interest lies in the contradictions and overlaps between the sacred and the profane, true religiosity. Meanwhile Berg uses the trappings of religious seriousness and procession to…well, she seems to have other ends.

Simple cruelty? Oh, yes, deliciously so. But just for its own sake? Or is she after something else, something more as well?

And are their similarities only superficial? Are they both taking such similar routes to disparate destinations, or are there also parallels at a deeper level?

aesthetic-sexualityI wish that I could simply block-quote the entire Chapter 7 of Romana Byrne’s Aesthetic Sexuality: A Literary History of Sadomasochistic Literature for you. That excellent book, which I reviewed last month, is not only intellectually perceptive, but, for me, held many insights on a more personal level as well. The book matches the changes in S/M literature, from Sade to now, with the evolution of Western aesthetic theory to argue that BDSM embodies an ars erotica, an aesthetic sexuality that reaches well beyond simple biological fucking.

This book was another well-timed find, as I happened across it while still trying to figure out how to digest both Buttò and Berg. And Chapter 7, as it happens, deals specifically with aspects of theatricality, within the post-modern era.

Inner Dark, Station II, 2006, Saturno Buttò.

Inner Dark, Station II, 2006, Saturno Buttò.

Two separate but related arguments are examined in this chapter—one rarified, subtle and complex, an argument between French theorists Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard; the other much more practical and relevant, between two opposed feminist groups in the 1980’s. I will simply recommend the book if you want to read the actual discussions, but they boil down to two basic ideas relevant to anyone who practices, writes or merely reads BDSM: that we create our own realities, regarding sexuality; and that the most common feminist criticisms of BDSM porn and practice—that it degrades women by copying the oppressive power structures in the real world outside the bedroom (or playroom)—were best negated by lesbian pro-S/M groups with a simple statement: You’re taking this far too literally.

It’s hard to explain kink to someone who doesn’t get it, isn’t it? It’s all so counter-intuitive; that’s what fascinates me most about it. Why do some people want to be whipped, bound, humiliated? Or to do the whipping and binding?

…Well, I’m not going to get into all that, right now. That question is the purpose of my entire blog, my entire project.

But that argument is the very basis for all things Kink: not just that consent is necessary, but that our adoption of the accoutrements of power do not reinforce the unfairness of real-life power. And even when they do, it is on purpose, usually ironically, with full knowledge of all involved. We’re not stupid, and we’re certainly not brainwashed by the Patriarchy.

Inner Dark, Station XIII, 2006, Saturno Buttò.

Inner Dark, Station XIII, 2006, Saturno Buttò.

The rules within a scene are different than those on the street or in the office. “A role adopted in a scene is not appropriate during other interactions,” as Pat Califia said in her essay “Feminism and Sadomasochism.” True cruelty—oppression—cannot exist in BDSM play (however much we may read or fantasize about it). Negotiations and consent are the basis of everything we do. And as has often been noted, it is the submissives—the supposed powerless—who have the power to define how far things will go. There are agreed-upon procedures, in play: rules.

And, not understood by critics, these rules differ from those in real life. That doesn’t mean that we don’t obey laws—non-consensual whipping is assault, non-consensual sex is still rape. Yet we do whip, we do beat—but it’s agreed upon, desired by both (or more) parties. It’s different, separate, this thing we do. It’s apart:

For Califia, “the S/M subculture is a theater in which sexual dramas can be acted out and appreciated,” and for Farr, it is “pure theater” and “what is being dramatized is the exercise of power”; a distinction between play and reality is implicit in Farr’s statement that “what is going on is a drama where the two principles […] act at being master and slave, play at being fearsome and fearful.”6

This is the purpose of theater: to create something separate from the mundane, even the “banality” of the orgasm, as Baudrillard said—to create an experientially segregated space. What happens here, whether onstage, in a playroom, in a club, or on a quay aside the Seine, does not happen “out there.” What we do is differentiated, put onto a separate plane.

Buttò and Berg depict ritual in their work—do they portray theater as well?

What is the difference?

Inner Dark, Station VIII, 2006, Saturno Buttò.

Inner Dark, Station VIII, 2006, Saturno

And what is the difference between “reality” and either ritual or theater? If done right, the whipping hurts­—yes the sub can recite the safeword, but if it is total theater—pure performance—there is no pain, no conversion by endorphins into pleasure. No satisfaction at all. The participants are merely actors, reading from a script for the benefit of others, not role players—a big difference. Would “Sebastian” volunteer to pretend to be burned by a cigarette just above his Mistress’s initials? (And yet the “ownership” is implied, not real.)

Ritual is closely related to theater—there are theories that Greek theater grew out of religious rituals7. But what separates the two most of all, in my opinion, is that rituals have a purpose­—a desired end.

Yes, theater has goals as well, but a ritual helps to bring about a change. Rituals may be small, personal—a prayer before boarding an airplane, donning a specific jersey before watching the big game—but are not separated from the “normal.” But some rituals are. Catholic ceremonies. Rituals of transformation, changes in life-stages: weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs.

Not all rituals are aimed at guiding supernatural powers to act in our favor, of course. There are things we do to prepare ourselves for our day, or end to our day. Making that perfect coffee, laying out our clothes. Psyching ourselves up to get out and meet those customers!

So what, if we agree that Buttò and Berg use theatricality but are primarily interested in ritual, are they after?




I am going to suggest that what they are after, in their complimentary but opposing routes, is the sublime.

L'arte e le Due Sue Sorelle, 2010, Saturno Buttò.

L’arte e le Due Sue Sorelle, 2010, Saturno Buttò.

Not mere beauty, not even the beauty of a carefully arranged suffering that Berg imposes on her volunteers; not just a heightened intensity of experience; not even, as Buttò states, the myriad connections between the spiritual and the profane—though it is related to that.

The concept of the sublime, as opposed to the beautiful, or the merely scary, began to get serious thought in the 17th and early 18th Centuries, when British men of letters began to travel around the Continent and encountered truly awe-inspiring landscapes and views of such magnificent things as the Alps, used as they were to seeing views of British mountains, which let’s face it are not especially awe-inspiring. They were frightened, they were amazed; stricken and overwhelmed.

The first philosopher to truly articulate the idea of the sublime was Edmund Burke in 1756. In his Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, he took issue with the ancient Greek theories that ugliness was simply an absence or lack of beauty, “beauty” being a quality that produces a feeling a pleasure.

Burke described the sublime as that which might be “ugly” (and his thoughts on this get very lengthy), but which has something within it to simultaneously create not only feelings of horror, but also intense emotions that can also be pleasurable: awe.

Fear, and an overwhelming attraction: emotions which beauty alone does not inspire—nor does the ugly:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.8


…Terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.9

Now that makes for some intense erotica! Burke was the first to point out that there is a physiological aspect to the sublime—a bodily intensity that goes beyond the warm feeling of the pleasurable, the regarding of the beautiful. I could go here into the aspects of “sub space,” the physical highs that a serious whipping produces through the release of endorphins, but that’s not (quite) my point.

Stigma, 2011, Saturno Buttò.

Stigma, 2011, Saturno Buttò.

The narrator in Women’s Rites puts her masochistic submissives through some fairly serious ordeals. Cutting, urine, humiliation, a stabbing. The ecstasies of sex, both providing it to guests without reciprocation and exchanging it within the ceremonies. The ceremonies are the rewards themselves, for both her and the voluntary (eager!) “victims”—they are self-contained events to experience, remember and think about later. They are pre-planned, and meticulously followed. Berg thrills at the control, of both the subjugated volunteers and the privileged yet subordinate guests.

She loses herself in the intensity of these ceremonies—frequently in the book, while conversing with the interviewer, she says that her recollections get vague at some point or another; suddenly her memories start at a later point, leaving gaps. And, her version of the evening often differs from the written accounts of the others participating.

These are not titillating little orgies, roomfuls of sensuality, naked bodies all contentedly increasing each others’ pleasure. Many people would consider the ceremonies horrific—and in some ways, they are. You wanna be stabbed through the leg?

Posture di Decadenza, 2010, Saturno Buttò.

Posture di Decadenza, 2010, Saturno Buttò.

Ditto in Buttò’s work—there are stabbings, cuttings, piercing arrows all over the place. Beyond the merely “kinky.” The background and context of how the situations in both of these creators’ work differs, of course: in Buttò there is no context but the image’s title and any art-historical/religious background that accompanies it; they are instances, images frozen in time, leaving us to wonder what came before and after.

In Berg, we get a bit more background. We learn about the set-ups of the events, how the assistants are instructed to bring the volunteers and blindfold them just before they enter the building. We learn of the narrator’s thoughts and impressions and motivations, while in Buttò, we are left to guess at the subjects’ motivations and sensations, even if we’ve been informed about the artist’s ideas.


I think they’re both striving for something higher, yet deeper, than is possible in our ordinary day-to-day experiences. I wrote at some length, in my previous review of Byrne’s Aesthetic Sexuality, about the idea of a “tragic self-shattering”—the subordination of one’s identity to something deeper and more intense than the typical individual subjectivity we all know, and delving into the Dionysian collective subjectivity.

Byrne uses Berg’s L’Image as well as The Story of O extensively as examples of this self-shattering, the subordination of one’s own will to the depths, the losing of oneself, as a means to self-discovery impossible in our more mundane normal existence. In such narratives, the characters need to see the darkness, feel the pain, lose their own identity, often through some pretty intense BDSM, in order to acquire this deeper knowledge. Chapter 4 of Byrne’s book explains how the letting go of the Apollonian outlook, the illuminated, the individualistic, the heroic, for the Dionysian—the darker, the collective and orgiastic, the filthy—leads to a face-to-face experience with the sublime. Citing Nietzsche (in quotation marks) Byrne states it wonderfully:

Dionysian aesthetic experience […] does not deliver one from suffering, but, on the contrary, unites one with the “eternal, primal pain, the only ground of the world.” …It allows the “terrible or absurd in existence,” which ordinarily incites revulsion, to be transformed into “representations with which man can live; these representations are the sublime”.10

In rendering “the most terrible and most questionable qualities of existence good,” the Dionysian sublime enables one to derive pleasure from “the most excruciating suffering,” demonstrating the way in which “art is the alleviation of the sufferer—as the way to states in which pain is willed, is transfigured, is deified, where suffering is a form of great ecstasy.”11

This is an experience of “blissful ecstasy,” “sublimity,” and horror. The experience of self-shattering is horrifying, but it is sublimely pleasurable to learn that individual subjectivity is “mere appearance, and that the eternal life of the Will is not affected by his annihilation.”12

Could this be what Buttò and Berg are all about? It’s certainly an understatement to say they’re not just dirty pictures and porn. The skill, the time, the devotion to craft that both creators invest in their work says, to me, that they want far more than to merely titillate, to compel a good wank.

They make art that is about facing the darkness, and finding it thrilling along with terrifying. Or perhaps finding the terrifying thrilling.

The sublime.

How can the concept be best conveyed to you? By reading Berg, perhaps, and by taking a long look at Buttò.

Saturno Buttò’s work, statements and news can be found here.


1.  Interview for Maxim Magazine, 2012.

2.  Interview for DarkItalia Magazine, 2011.

3.  Interview for InsideArt Magazine, 2010.

4.  ibid.

5.  Interview with Albert Hofer for Channel 83.

6.  Romana Byrne, Aesthetic Sexuality, 2013, p. 147; quoting Califia,”Feminism,” 232 and Farr, “Discipline,” 187.

7.  This is a very interesting article with a wonderful list of source material.

8.  Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, Part I, Section VII.

9.  ibid, Part II, Section II.

10.  Byrne, p. 79/80.

11.  ibid, p. 80.

12.  ibid, p. 84


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