TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1984

SUGAR AND VICE AND...BALTHUS: A RETROSPECTIVE

I saw the polka dots dancing, so to speak, on the ruffled jumpers of the two smaller girls seated side by side in the warm grass and holding hands, blowing chubby laughter in my direction as if they had never seen me before. And the peace, the warmth, the stasis, the smell of it—in such circumstances how could I help but enjoy my own immensity of size or the range of my interests, how help but appreciate the adaptability of certain natural scenes which, like this one, allow for the play of children one minute and the seclusion of adults the next? I felt a coolness between my porous thin white shirt and the skin of my chest. In linen slacks and alligator belt and hard low-cut shoes the color of amber, I sensed the consciousness of someone carefully dressed for taking care of children.

—John Hawkes, The Blood Oranges

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART’S installation of “Balthus” began with The Window, 1933, in which a young model—her blouse ripped back to expose one breast, her hand raised to ward off something melodramatic—teeters precariously toward an open window. The emotional mood of the painting is unattractively underscored in Sabine Rewald’s catalogue comments concerning its genesis:

When the young model Elsa Henriquez . . . first arrived at Balthus’s studio in the Rue de Furstenberg, he opened the door dressed in his old army uniform, a dagger in his hand and a scowl on his face. He grabbed her blouse and tried to pull it open. Elsa recoiled in horror, just as Balthus had intended. Now she looked like the frightened Sarah from the Tobias Legend, a subject planned for another painting.1

The anxious sexual terror of Elsa relaxed in the exhibition’s next gallery, which concentrated primarily on the early portraits and street scenes and concluded with that huge kitschy iceberg of a painting, The Mountain, 1937. Then, looming around the corner, installed like an altarpiece, hung The Room, 1952–54. It is one of Balthus’ best-known paintings (the virtually unseen but oft-reproduced The Guitar Lesson, 1934, being probably the most “notorious”) and it was the fulcrum of the exhibition. It is also, again according to Rewald, the painting that portrays “the most erotic and self-abandoned of Balthus’s narcissistic adolescent girls.” As if to accelerate the confirmation of that judgment, the rest of the core gallery was all aquiver with paedophilic tremors.

Why was the Metropolitan unfurling one of its football-field Fifth Avenue banners in honor of Balthus as if he were a contender? The bulk of Balthus’ work occupies essentially the same esthetic tier as that of Fernando Botero or Tamara de Lempicka. Both stylistically and technically, it is often difficult to differentiate among the faux naïf, the clumsy, the fashionable, and the facile. To be sure, there are the occasional lovely landscape, competent still life, and dramatique portrait. There are also a few paintings that could be taken seriously (Joan Miró and His Daughter Dolores, 1937–38, The Children, 1937), and there’s always Balthus’ chef d’oeuvre, the suite of drawings illustrating Wuthering Heights, 1934–35. The problem is that there really isn’t a lot about this work to differentiate it from the output of thousands of other perfectly OK painters. What makes the problem worth noting is that Balthus’ specialty, his gimmick, is eroticism. Take it away and you’ve got a series of compositional exercises. Propped up on the twin crutches of academic acceptability—classicism and Mannerism—this is heroicized bourgeois naughtiness being saluted for being the right kind of pornography.

In the confines of The Room, there is a whiff of something in the air. It is as if the much-remarked-upon light that suffuses Balthus’ canvases carries in it the moist, sickly texture of sirocco. As if awaiting the rustle of dustcovers, exquisitely denuded rooms gasp for the particled light which hesitantly reveals fungous walls and luxe draperies. Accessories—a cascade of fabric, a weathered prayer rug, the “simplest” of wash basins, a soigné arrangement of overripe fruit—heighten the artful austerity of the rooms and suggest that they have less to do with life than with interior decoration. These chambers are backdrops for ritual, and what props they possess—chair, chaise, or table—are altars for choreographed communions.

Inhabiting these breathless sacristies are Balthus’ dewy postulants. Posed in attitudes of embryonic abandon, the girls are supposed to occupy a world of precognitive sensuality. Curtain after curtain is drawn back to reveal yet another pair of precocious thighs awaiting the lazy attention of the tiny hand that, only a sunbeam before, caressed the kitten by the window. In the inviolate privacy of their deserted rooms, the children’s hands—oddly, consistently reminiscent of forks and spoons—resolve themselves into utensils for sleepy sexual banqueting. Their heavy, classically modeled heads recall ancient kouroi and have that same tentative expression of smugness that once, nobly, whispered the tender union of god and man. Unlike the kouroi, however, Balthus’ children tend to lounge.

Often accompanying Balthus’ girls are boys, maids, and cats. The boys are, for the most part, adenoidal Nibelungs retained to repetitively lose at cards or stoke the occasional fire. The maids are merely compositional elements, usually placed in close proximity to a window. Then there are the cats. In almost every sense, the cats act as the girls’ privileged familiars. Treated with an anthropomorphic flourish, they come from an illustrative tradition that includes such inspired moments as Gustave Doré’s Puss in Boots and John Tenniel’s Cheshire Cat. But in Balthus’ hands, the cats are cast as pimps, sometimes hopelessly vulgar, sometimes Orientally discreet. At best, they are insinuating. At worst, they are punch lines for dirty jokes. Either way, they set the mood for Balthus’ sinister operettas.

The girls themselves are demimonde poppets. Here Colette’s darling Gigi, there Zola’s feral Satin. A description of the spoiled Pauline Bonaparte languishing on a Haitian plantation in the fiery heat of revolution comes very close to capturing the quintessential Balthus girl:

She was in a room darkened by Venetian blinds, lying on a sofa. . . . She amused General Boyer, who sat at her feet, by letting her slipper fall continually, which he respectfully put on as often as it fell. She is small, fair, with blue eyes and flaxen hair. Her face is expressive of sweetness but without spirit. She has a voluptuous mouth and is rendered interesting by an air of languor which spreads itself over her whole frame. . . . She hates reading, and though passionately fond of music plays no instrument. . . . She can do nothing but dance.2

While Balthus is presumably painting children, there is little of the child left in his girls’ faces. Long gone is that expression “as surprised and ecstatic as a young girl who has discovered her puberty” that Zola ascribed to his marvelous whore, Nana. Habitual sensualists, these children are bored with self-discovery; they are posturing for the delectation of familial voyeurs. Balthus drains these children of innocence and replaces it with something dark and cunning. And in that transfusion lies the corrupt seductiveness of his art.

In his classicist compositions, decorator palette, and eccentrically stylized line, the objectification of children has become acceptable, even chic. These masturbatory paintings attain a serpentine refinement similar to that assumed by Elsa de’Giorgi literally waltzing her way through a monologue on shit and subjugation in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Nowhere is there the touch of bitter sweetness, of first feelings; everywhere is debasement. Every point of view, including the children’s to each other, is one of adult libidinousness. Yet this is not admitted within the work as it is in, say, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden’s work, where the interest is so up-front, so apparent, that the issue of morality is gratuitous. No situation is being presented or confronted; no attempt is being made to elucidate a truth. The hook is the girls. By situating them in a narcissistic purdah of their own devising, one senses that Balthus is scrambling to avoid the liability of his vision. Giovanni Carandente, in the Spoleto catalogue for an exhibition of the artist’s drawings and watercolors, spouts what has by now become the party line for the artist’s apologists: “ . . . Balthus considers the eroticism in his work to be sacred and for this reason he likes it to be neither publicized nor commented on.”3 Period. Carandente then obediently wanders into a compositional discussion of The Guitar Lesson without ever alluding to its subject matter. Obviously, clitoral spiritualism mitigates against any hyperventilated discussions of subject matter.

Too much Balthus leave one longing for something akin to the honest, albeit faux-Ferlinghetti, articulation of Larry Clark in in his description of the adolescent hustlers he photographed on 42nd Street:

It’s what the kid is offering, that’s what I’m getting. The picture of what the kid is offering. The kid is offering himself. He’s selling something. It’s more a look than anything. It’s a look, right? It’s an entire attitude. It’s a way of seeing things, but it’s all polished up. It’s point of sale.4

Well, it’s “point of sale” in Balthus as well and, for sure, it’s “all polished up.” However, Balthus substitutes the eye of a jaded connoisseur for the lens of an artist. And the result is as chilly and artificial as Lautréamont’s Maldoror, who “whenever he hugged a rosycheeked young child . . . was longing to hack off those cheeks with a razor and would have done so often had not the idea of Justice and her long cortège of punishments restrained him on every occasion.”5 (Every occasion, that is, except The Guitar Lesson.) Clearly Balthus strains toward the dark, self-conscious Surrealism of Lautréamont and its “sweet atmosphere” of evil. Still, for all his efforting, he emerges as a poseur caught in an onanistic web of artifice. In the end, a drop of semen on a silk handkerchief is not really the stuff of great art.

Richard Flood is a critic and the director of Barbara Gladstone Gallery New York.

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NOTES

1. Sabine Rewald, Balthus, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1984, p. 66.

2. Mary Hassal writing to Aaron Burr; quoted in Hubert Cole, Christophe: King of Haiti, New York: Viking Press, 1967, p. 110.

3. Giovanni Carandente, Balthus: Drawings and Watercolors, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1983, p. 14.

4. Larry Clark, Teenage Lust, New York: self-published, 1984.

5. Lautréamont’s Maldoror, trans. by Alexis Lykiard, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1973, p. 2.