Balthus (1908-2001) presents two problems as a painter. First, and most notoriously, almost his entire output consists of paintings of sexualized adolescent or prepubescent girls. This raises challenging questions out the ethics of the work, and our ethics as viewers of the work. Second, Balthus's style does not fit very neatly into the narrative of 20th century art history. His career spanned many movements in art, but he can't be easily classified under any, and his technique is resolutely out of sync with the extremes of modernist experimentation. Balthus is, thus, shocking in content and conservative in form. These two problems, I want to suggest, are connected.
The occasion for this mediation in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, called "Balthus: Cats and Girls,"which is closing this coming weekend. The image at the top of this post, "Nude with a Cat" (1949), captures the titular theme of the show, as does the canonical image above, one of the artist's most emblematic painting, "Thérése Dreaming." The girl in this picture was Balthus's neighbor and muse in the 1930s, and she is accomanied by a cat lapping up a saucer of milk.
Cat's were an early obsession for Balthus, and, in the painting on the left, he represents himself at "The King of Cats" (1935). This image may be a key to understanding the role of cats in his more erotically charged paintings. The artist identifies with the felines, and this suggests that each of his cats is actually a self-portait. So-personified, he becomes voyeur, participant, and plaything.
With this in mind, the theme "Cats and Girls" takes on a slightly sinister cast. In an ordinary context, the title sounds benign, almost saccharine. But Balthus's cats, with their strangely human features, serve as sublimated symbols of his own desire. They are sly intruders who discretely enter a world that is usually kept hidden from view.
That said, the Metropolitan show makes a somewhat awkward effort to dilute the moral impact of Balthus's work. It begins with a warning that the images might upset some viewers, and then opens with an overview that is somewhere between an apology and an effort to proclaim the artist's innocence. Placards by the paintings identify the models, indicating their age and relation to the artist. These facts are presented with neither probity nor sensationalism. They are listed with the same matter-of-factness as the media used: "Oil and canvas, picture of artist's 12-year-old model, nude." Perhaps such clinical detachment was the optimal curatorial option, but these cool facts are periodically supplemented with inane commentaries that seem intended to distract away from the sexual themes of the work.
Such pussyfooting is unjustified. We should move head-on into the sexual content of the work. Balthus insisted that his paintings have no erotic content. This is laughably untrue. Balthus has a singular, indeed fetishistic, preoccupation with young girls. A staggering proportion of his canvases consist in little more than a girl lounging in a non-descript interior in some state of undress or otherwise provocatively positioned (a hitched skirt or a fetching sprawl). These girts are noticeably underage according to prevailing sexual norms and laws. They are usually at the dawn of puberty, far too young to be ogled with impunity.
Granted the sexuality here is innocent in some sense. Balthus often presents pubescent sexuality in a way that is consistent with the urges and self-discoveries prevalent at that age. His is giving free reign to his own desires, no doubt, but he is also representing his subjects as comfortable with the own burgeoning sexuality. Some paintings also explore the narcissism of youth, with girls admiring their own reflection. "Golden Girls" (1944-5), reproduced above, is a case in point. Balthus is presenting girls at an age that is generally neglected in art--an interstice between childhood and womanhood. Though passive in posture, his models have both agency and dignity. He resists the misogynistic trope of making them into coquettish vixens, and instead presents an easy confidence, which is neither threatening nor vulnerable.
There are also paintings where there is some degree of ambiguity. Balthus forces us to wonder whether the sexualization is in the work or in the viewer. Consider "Thérése on a Bench Seat" (1939), above. Is this child sitting causally with exposed legs supposed to be viewed sexually? If our attention is drawn to her bare legs and the minuscule hint of her panties, is the artist to blame or or we the culprits? Paintings like this are among Balthus's most compelling works, because they implicate and incriminate the viewer. If we interpret these pictures as erotically charged we become complicitous in the artist's own pedophelia.
The maternal link to Rilke was not Balthus's only family connections to the arts. His father was an art historian and both parents were painters. They knew Andre Gide, Raymond Rousel, and Pierre Bonnard, among others. The relationship to Bonnard is of special interest, since Balthus's taste for domestic interiors makes him something on heir to the older painter.
The exhbition's final room also includes "Girl at the Window" (1955) (above left). The subject of the painting in Balthus's niece, Frederique Tison. She is depicted with the artist in the photo on the right, taken for Life Magazine one year later. The placard next to the painting oddly suggests that, unlike Romanticist portrayals of women by windows, Frederique is not represented as longing for distant places. On the contrary, I would say the tangle of jungle-like foliage and the exaggerated exoticism of the distant building suggest that this is very much a painting in the Romanticist painting. Interesting, Balthus described himself as a religious painter, a theme that the Met show suppresses. The curators would have us believe that Balthus was neither a pornographer nor a mystic. There is a concerted effort to make him bland.
The curators' effort to domesticate Balthus can also be seen by some of the conspicuous omissions of the show. They include a few racy paintings, but they leave out others, which would give lie to the artist's insistence that he is a model of innocence. Consider, for example, his 1936 portrait (above left) of his friend, the famed fauve, André Derain. Derain appears in a bathrobe with a topless young model sitting demurely behind him. It is hard not to read this as implying some intimacy between artist and model. Curiously, the model looks nothing like Derain's usual women (above right), but rather resembles Antoinette de Watteville, the younger sister of a Balthus's friend Robert de Wattewille. Balthus had an obsession with Antoinette. In a letter, he described her as an "empire of a girl: I just have to enter it to be completely lost. And she is as I would like all girls to be. Adorable atmosphere of tasting precocious children, cups of hot chocolate with cream and love." A year after the Derain portait was executed, Balthus would marry Antoinette and paint the portrait below. Both this portrait, and the one with Derain are missing from the Met show. Perhaps the Museum wanted to conceal the fact that he married one of his models.
An even more conspicuous absence is Balthus's most infamous painting, "The Guitar Lesson" (1934), below. Hidden from public view for decades, the Metropolitan could have used the exhibition as an occasion to let viewers see this work first hand. They didn't have the courage. The painting shows a prepubescent girl reclining on the lap of her guitar teacher with her naked lower body fully exposed. The teacher's fingers approach the child's hairless genitals, and the child pinches the nipple of her teacher's breast. Little is left to the imagination. Least imaginable is Balthus's yarn about never painting anything erotic. This is a flagrant ruse on the part of the artist. By excluding such overt works, the Museum perpetuates this fiction.
Further (and unneeded!) confirmation of Balthus's sexualization of childhood can be found a few blocks from the Metropolitan at a show mounted by the Gaggosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. There, for the first time, viewers can see a large collection of preparatory photographs that Balthus took between 1999 and 2000, at the end of his life. They are polaroids of a young model, Anna Wahli, who dutifully posed for him, every Wednesday, from the time she was 8 to the age of 16. She was Balthus's final muse. The photos show Wahli topless, sometimes with exposed underwear, on a sofa. There are dozens of photos, so many that it is hard to imagine they were being used as studies, since there is little evidence that Balthus was producing many paintings during this phase of his life.
I present three of the photos here, with some reluctance, though many of them have an undeniable beauty. The last of these has dramatic lighting and contrast, which is notable in part because these features are not characteristic of Balthus's work. The only painting in the Gaggosian show is the last he produced. It remains unfinished. Viewing it, we see that Balthus's method of painting changed little over the decades, and there are signs that he lacked the physical wherewithal to complete the central figure. There is some reassurance in this, because he presumably lacked other physical powers. The show also includes a lengthy statement by Wahli herself, which gives the impression that her sessions with Balthus did not include anything other than posing for pictures, chatting, and drinking tea.
It is worth nothing that Balthus himself had posed during his adolescence for the a Swiss sculptor named Margrit Bay. The sensual reclining nude below was made of Balthus when he was 15 (below). (Source: Sabine Reward's "Balthus's Magic Mountain"Burlington Magazine, 1997.) Thus, for Balthus, there was nothing particularly unusual about the idea of a young person posing for an artist in a state of undress.
Nevertheless, seeing Balthus's photos was uncomfortable. Wahli is disturbingly young, and her poses represent her as a potential object of desire, in the long tradition of reclining nudes. This brings moral questions into focus, so to speak. Are these pictures unethical? Is it unethical to view them? Should they be on view and on sale for $40,000 in a New York gallery? Should erotically charged paintings of children be on display in a museum or is high culture serving a a pretext for child pornography?
In philosophy, there is a heated debate about whether moral defects can diminish the aesthetic quality of a work of art. I don't want to weigh in on that debate here, partially, because I don't think Balthus's paintings are immoral. Or rather, I think they occupy a border-zone where moral questions are asked but not fully answered. They sexualize children, but they don't strike me as tools to satisfy pedophelic fantasies. Rather, they remind us that children of this age are sexually awakening, as Freud had emphasized, and, in presenting this aspect of youth, Balthus is actually giving his models a dimension of personhood that most other artists have chosen to censor. Seen in this light, the work is more a celebration of childhood sexuality than an exploitation of it. Of course, that verdict cannot be settled with any finality. The work derives much of its power and notoriety from its ethical inscrutability.
Balthus also toys with us in pictures like the early Wuthering Heights illustration on the left (1933-4). There is nothing overtly sexual here, but the woman on the floor (Catherine, in the book), is hardly in a natural posture for writing, and the man staring down at her looks vaguely lascivious (this chapter of the book, chap 3, involves desire for Catherine, who appears a a ghost in a dream).
Balthus leaves us with moral quandaries that implicate us as viewers and have no obvious resolution. He presents sexual themes (and, less often, violence), but refuses to own up to this, offloading responsibility on us. That is the first problem of his work.
This is just one of the two problems I advertised at the outset. The other is much more academic: what place does Balthus occupy in art history? He was born in Paris during the heyday of cubism, and lived through countless other -isms, but he belongs to none. He was friends with Man Ray, but is not a surrealist (there are two surrealist cat-man paintings in the show, but they are so unforgivably bad that I chose to exclude them). He was also friends with Giacometti, but shows little sign of post-war existential dread -- in fact his pre-war work is a bit more angsty. He flirts with abstraction by distorting the figure and face, but never stays far from realism. Indeed he shows signs of classical compulsivity, working and reworking a composition until it is just right. As a case in point, the Met show includes the two lovely "Drawing Room" paintings (above) created 1943 and 1942. Curiously, the later picture omits the cat. Perhaps it distracted too much from the crouching girl, who is also rendered less adrogenously than in the original. Her posture repeats the Wuthering Heights illustration from ten years earlier, but the leering man has been replaced by a languid girl. (There are often auxiliary female characters in Balthus's work, and much could be written about their role and meaning.)
Balthus's classicism is also very evident in a painting the Museum owns but didn't include in the show: "The Mountain" (1935-7), above. This monumental work, about twelve feet wide, is unusual in various respects: it is a multi-figure composition, with three men, set outdoors. There is little overt sexuality here, though Antoinette stretches her arms in the center, thrusting out her chest, and another young woman takes a rest in the grass, with a skirt that sits well above the knee. More than anything, "The Mountain" ostentatiously demonstrates that Balthus is a seriously skilled painter.
Balthus's technical gifts are manifest throughout the work. Even when he paints loosely, he displays masterful control of the medium. He is not taking his cues from his contemporary modernists. Rather, he is tipping his hat to Renaissance masters, such as Matagna, Pierro della Francesca, and Poussin. The "Young Girl with White Skirt" (1955) on the left, which is in the Met show could be mistaken for a classical study if the model's chest were less brazenly exposed. We know from it's frank sexuality, that this canvas came after Goya, Manet, and Courbet. But it doesn't present itself as 20th century painting. At least not at first glance. A closer look reveals that the lower portion of the painting remains quite rough, with paint dripping from down the canvas (see the detail below). We are suddenly reminded that Balthus produced this work at a time when de Kooning and Pollack are among the most famous artists in the world.
This leaves us wondering how Balthus, who was an artworld insider, managed to produce work that is so difficult to classify among 20th century movements. And why have art dealers, museums, and viewers recognized him as a major figure, when he resists being located in the usual art historical narrative? This is the second problem of Balthus.
I want to end by suggesting that the two problems of Balthus are connected. Indeed each problem may be the solution to the other. Beginning with the second problem, we can say that Balthus's place in art history is secured not by his technical mastery, but by his subject matter. His technical mastery makes reference to past painters, which is perhaps a prerequisite to his recognition as an important figure in art history, but his fame stems from the fact that he has the capacity to provoke. The twentieth century is a century of provocation. Cubists provoked by departing from retinal realism, and Balthus provokes by presenting sexuality in a way that makes us uneasy.
Of course, countlessly many paintings in the history of Western art depict sexualized women, on display for heterosexual male titillation. For this reason, much Western are it could be regarded as morally problematic. But we view this work without the slightest unease. Balthus rattles at the cage of our own values. His interrogation of accepted norms has more sting than any of the revolutionary stylistic innovations that were taking place during his lifetime. Despite his classicism, Balthus is unflinchingly avant garde. In other words, the problem of Balthus's uncertain place in art history is solved by recognizing that his problematic moral content makes his a paradigm member of the 20th century assault on prevailing norms.
The moral problem, in turn, may be addressed by considering Balthus's unclassifiable style. Once we recognize his distaste for stylistic invention, we face a choice: either Balthus does not belong in the narrative of 20th century art, or his position is secured through other means. I just suggested that his position is secured because of his provocative subject matter. This sheds light on his moral choices as a painter. The discomfort we feel when viewing Balthus paintings stems from the fact that they might be viewed as a kind of high-brow kitty porn. But this way of viewing them is optional. Balthus's sexualization of youth can be seen as an art historical device: as an instance of modernist provocation and, perhaps too, as a comment on the sexuality found in Western art more generally. Balthus combines sexualization with classical techniques, as if to say all art is pornographic. He also comments on his own contemporaries. Indeed, his pose for Thérése in the picture above is quoted from a photocollage by Man Ray, which was sleuthed out by preeminent Balthus scholar, Sabine Rewald (right).
This reading does not require that we see the sexualization in Balthus as benign. If we view his work as an art historical commentary, then we can read him as reminding us the much of the Western canon is morally fraught as well. He shakes us out of complacency by shocking us, and he delivers that shock in a package that evokes early Renaissance painters. If this interpretation is right, the moral ambiguity of his work becomes less perplexing: it is an instantiation of an ambiguity that has always been there and a strategy for making that perennial ambiguity more apparent. His refusal to admit the eroticism of his work can be seen as a familiar tactic of denial in the face of the obvious. "No no no," we can hear Pierro della Francesca protesting, "there is nothing sexual or violent in that naked bleeding torso of Christ surrounded by organismic mourners."