Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Cats and Girls: artcritical’s Roundtable on Balthus at the Met

With Duncan Hannah, Dennis Kardon, David Carbone, Christina Kee, Vincent Katz and Nora Griffin

David Cohen was joined in an email exchange recently by six painters and a poet – all sometime or regular contributors at artcritical and/or The Review Panel – to discuss the exhibition, Balthus: Cats and Girls which remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 12, 2014.

Balthus, The Golden Days, 1944-1946. Oil on canvas, 58.25 x 78.375 inches. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966 © Balthus
Balthus, The Golden Days, 1944-1946. Oil on canvas, 58.25 x 78.375 inches. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966 © Balthus

DAVID COHEN  Balthus was something of an anomaly: A maverick amidst modernist friends who emulated old master technique; the self-taught painter who went on to direct the Villa de Medici (the French Academy in Rome) and who is thus, in a way, the heir of Poussin.  What strikes us most as we enter this show: his naïveté or his mastery? Maybe Balthus is proof of the degree to which those qualities are by now inextricably linked.

DUNCAN HANNAH  If one is as single-minded and precocious as Balthus, and having grown up in such an illustrious artistic atmosphere (Rilke, Matisse, Bonnard, Derain, Stravinsky, et al.) the fact that he was “un-trained” doesn’t count for much. When I entered the show I was overwhelmed by his mastery, not naiveté. It is as though he always confidently knew where he was going.

DENNIS KARDON  There is certainly a confidence about his paintings that is immediately striking, if that is what you mean by mastery. There is none of the uncertainty that you see in early Matisse for example. But what grabbed me fairly early was the sense of loneliness and isolation that pervades the paintings. I don’t think of them as old masterish in technique so much as not attempting a radical break with the past.

Balthus, Thérèse on a Bench Seat, 1939. Oil on canvas, 27.875 x 36 inches. Dorothy R. and Richard E. Sherwood Family Collection © Balthus
Balthus, Thérèse on a Bench Seat, 1939. Oil on canvas, 27.875 x 36 inches.
Dorothy R. and Richard E. Sherwood Family Collection © Balthus

DAVID CARBONE  There are a number of myths surrounding Balthus, one of which is that he was self-taught. Ultimately, of course, every true artist does end up being self-taught if they come to possess a genuinely personal vision. Nevertheless, Balthus was home-schooled by parents who were painters.  Their social circle included Pierre Bonnard and Andre Derain. His father, Erich Klossowski, was also an art historian who wrote a major work on Daumier and illustrated a play for puppets, written by his close friend, the key champion of modern art, Julius Meier-Graefe. It was Balthus’s father who drew a parallel between Cézanne and Piero della Francesca as inventors of forms that exhibited strong tensions in the surface of the picture even as they kept their placed in a fictive space. This key bridge between modernism and the early Renaissance opened a unique path for the child artist. By the time he gets to visit San Sepolcro, after yearning to do so for several years, he is still only 17.

COHEN  He was obviously exposed, then, to better and more exclusive tutelage than students at any of the art schools of his day.  But he was, perhaps, relatively free of a beaux-arts syllabus or the pressures of avant-garde anti-academicism.

CHRISTINA KEE  Naïveté or mastery? I find myself feeling that the works possess neither.  It lacks the charm, or charge, of the first trait, and the interest associated with the latter. I have to say that, for me, Balthus is an artist smitten with the heady cultural innovations of his time, and with the “look” of traditional figurative painting, who spent his painting life well-satisfied with the resulting, and uneasy, pairing of dissonant form and content. I believe on his list of priorities the sexual life of girls-becoming-women wasn’t even that high, as I don’t even feel the finished paintings express sincere eroticism. The works instead seem to be the end result of a highly self-conscious desire to place a intentionally-intense subject matter within a tidy container. The two opposing forces cancel each other out.

CARBONE  If Balthus’s paintings have the “look” of the past for you, I suggest that you compare them, say to any 17th century realist and you may notice that past realists never sacrificed modeled forms to simplified planar shapes where a certain “non-finito” is always possible and in places, perhaps necessary. After all, these imagined rooms are also the work of memory not necessarily of specific events but of aspects of awareness. Balthus, as an anti-modern or post-modern, is necessarily one who has reshaped his language through modernism; his idiom is uniquely his own. As to your last comment, I feel that we live in a culture where dialectical thought is rarely found and in Balthus its use seems to express the anxiety of being.

KEE  Balthus is no Courbet. The difference between Courbet’s very visible, material, engagement with his subject matter and Balthus’s more, well, “utilitarian” use of his medium is the difference between participation and illustration.
.      Illustration isn’t necessarily a negative (it’s an impulse that is quite wonderful in Balthus’s early “Wuthering Heights” sketches, for example, which feel more true to me than other works) but it’s a mode in which the painter is somewhat removed from the immediate implications of each stroke.. I simply don’t feel Balthus’s way of making paintings includes the kind of subtle play of medium you are seeing in the work. Where you are seeing deliberate explorations between volume and plane I’m seeing a premeditated deployment of economic means towards an end. I have the same problem with John Currin’s work- the intentional distancing from the subject just doesn’t produce a charge for me.

Balthus, The King of Cats,1935. Oil on canvas, 30.75 x 16.25 inches. Fondation Balthus, Switzerland © Balthus and right, René Magritte, Self-Portrait, 1936. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2013.
Balthus, The King of Cats,1935. Oil on canvas, 30.75 x 16.25 inches. Fondation Balthus, Switzerland © Balthus and right, René Magritte, Self-Portrait, 1936. © Charly Herscovici – ADAGP – ARS, 2013.

VINCENT KATZ  If we consider mastery to be self-mastery, Balthus certainly knew who he was in a big way, and set that up clearly for the rest of his career.  In terms of technique — in one of those coincidental, or perhaps not so coincidental, juxtapositions that living in New York City provides as a matter of course — I found Balthus in this exhibition less technically adept than René Magritte, as evidenced in the current exhibition at MoMA that opened the same week.  Except for the amazing painting The Victim (1939-46): there I felt Balthus’s technique was in synch with his subject to haunting effect.

KARDON  I have to disagree with Vincent. As a painter, Magritte (at least in the MoMA exhibit) was merely a journeyman. That’s because he was more of an image-maker than a painter.

COHEN  I’ve got to say I always thought Magritte’s technique was intentionally dull – with the bland touch of a sign painter – compared to either the inventive lyricism of Miró or the virtuoso slickness of Dalí.  Balthus is that rarity, it seems to me, an artist who is totally authentic within a self-consciously outmoded painterly idiom.  He doesn’t seem to be intent on juggling several historic styles to make a contemporary one; nor on passing himself off as belonging to a specific past period; nor on playing the kind of stylistic games that were or would soon become current (Picasso, Derain, Picabia).  But intensely as he might be looking at Courbet, Piero et al. he isn’t occupying their respective period looks as if trying to pass himself off as a contemporary of one of them either.

Photograph by Dennis Kardon of a detail of Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming,1938. Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 © Balthus
Photograph by Dennis Kardon of a detail of Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming,1938. Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 © Balthus

KARDON  Magritte was only interested in pictorial ambiguity and not painterly ambiguity: he needed to paint only what was necessary to make the meaning for his image, but was not really interested in the painting process. Whereas Balthus was totally concerned with the ambiguities of paint in creating an image. Not only are you staring right up Thérèse’s crotch but – because the surface breaks to reveal the reddish brown under painting – it appears she has just gotten her period. This is missing in the earlier Art Institute painting and goes to my point about the ambiguous meaning from the substance of the paint rather than Magritte’s ambiguity from the image.  And note that this painting has been hung significantly higher here than when it is in the permanent collection, presumably to enhance the crotch point of view.

CARBONE  The flat-footedness of Magritte’s realism is an intentional take down of traditional academic painting that has to do with a Dadaist play of signs.  In a somewhat related way, Balthus uses a more complex realism in the 1930s and early 40s to evoke a Biedermeier style of 19th century northern painting that he then subverts with a severe simplicity taken from children’s picture books to which he adds a range of tonalities that evoke a claustrophobic and melancholy air.

HANNAH  I agree that Balthus’s unself-conscious techniques that appear to be from an earlier time. And, unlike Magritte, there is a great deal of interest in the paint, rarely covering his tracks, using a kind of classical shorthand. I find his surfaces gorgeous and economical, always in the service of the spell he is casting.

KATZ  I like David Cohen’s phrase “intentionally dull” for Magritte’s technique.  First of all, that it was intentional.  And second, dull in the sense of lack of flash.  We are conditioned, I believe, by the discourse, to look only at Magritte’s images.  If however, one takes the current MoMA exhibition as an opportunity to analyze technique in the service of imagery, one finds the technique not only proficient but actually fluid in a subtle way.  And in fact, David’s phrase, “authentic within a self-consciously outmoded painterly idiom,” could be applied to Magritte’s technique as much as to Balthus’.  However, in terms of imagery, I remain impressed by Balthus’s decisions and the clarity of his obsessions and prefer them to Magritte’s.  Indeed, that is where Balthus’s originality and lasting appeal lies.  He remains uneven, with some paintings being much more successful than others.  One of my favorites is Thérèse (1938), in which the girl leans back in an armchair with her face turned toward the viewer.  Her eyes travel even a little farther to the left, not focusing on the artist/viewer — or is it that she is slightly cross-eyed?  Her entire gesture is understated, and, instead of looking up her skirt, as per usual, we are able to see her arms and hands and legs as something ordinary, yet suddenly of heightened interest.  In other words, the point of view, in this painting, does not highlight the specifically sexual identity of the girl, but rather her sensuality.  It is a subtle distinction, but one I think worth making.  I also love the background of this painting — not only the Mondrian-esque bands of color that compose the far wall, but particularly the table and its wrinkled cover cloth, which reminds me of the work of Rodrigo Moynihan, who I feel is somehow relevant to a discussion of Balthus.

Balthus, The Victim, 1939-46. Oil on canvas, 51 x 85.75 inches. Private collection. © Balthus
Balthus, The Victim, 1939-46. Oil on canvas, 51 x 85.75 inches. Private collection. © Balthus

NORA GRIFFIN  I’m interested in this comparison between Balthus and Magritte, two painters who played with the dialectic between “painting” and “image,” in explicit fantasy-constructed painted worlds. David Cohen’s critique of Magritte (“the bland touch of a sign painter”) is precisely what to me, makes his painted images so powerfully democratic. It feels accessible the way pop songs used to be accessible to many strata of people, whereas Balthus’s paintings seem to me a kind of perverse delicacy for an almost comically dark European sensibility. Balthus’s stylized (agonizingly stylized, sometimes) figures also put me in mind of Max Beckmann without the saving grace of allegory, metaphor, or myth. These are truly myth-less paintings for an unenchanted, impossible, violent 20th century. I’m not sure what use they have in the 21st century, but that’s a whole other matter.
.      And by using the word “perverse,” I’m thinking not of Balthus’s notorious subject matter, but more of the way the paint is handled and the sheen of yellowish-bluish death pallor that permeates many of his surfaces and skin tones (The Victim, 1939, is the clearest example of this). I agree with Christina that the eroticism of his work is not apparent through his explicit subject matter of adolescents in subtly sexualized poses. Instead, for me, Balthus’s eroticism is expressed in the juxtaposition of bodies and furniture, how a bent child’s leg mimics the spindly table legs in The Blanchard Siblings and The Salon, and how ornamental details pop out, such as a silver sliver of knife embedded in a round loaf of bread in Still Life with a Figure. The bodily sense of containment emphasized by the repeated horizontal wallpaper featured in many of the paintings is also somewhat of an erotic device, far more than the motifs of candlestick or blazing fire.

KARDON  I sympathise with Christina and Nora’s inability to connect with these paintings, but for me, the connection has to do with the sense of isolation from the world that I come away with and not with any real eroticism, except the liminal representation that comes with being disconnected from actual sex. I think Balthus had a rather peculiar childhood with a highly sexualized and creative mother and a cuckolded father, and with a lover of his mother (whom most children would ordinarily have resented) who embodied a high cultural position and in fact encouraged his career, publishing the drawings he did at 11 which concerned the finding and loss of a feline companion. I think loss and the inability to connect to the world or hold on to the evanescence of passing life are the animating force of his paintings and a feeling that resonates strongly with me.

KATZ  I entirely agree with Nora’s take on Magritte and her analysis of his popular appeal versus Balthus as a taste for a particular elite.  But I don’t take that view of Balthus to be a negative one.  Regarding Balthus’s paintings’ lacking the saving grace of allegory, metaphor or myth, I am not so sure.  The Guitar Lesson seems to partake of all three, though they can’t necessarily be pinned down on a one-to-one basis.  But even his less functionally explicit paintings have something metaphorical about them, in my opinion.  I liked how you locate Balthus’s eroticism in the non-human elements in his images.  But do you feel that those elements support the main subjects of the paintings or work in contrast to them?

Balthus, The Guitar Lesson, 1934 [not in current exhibition] © Balthus
Balthus, The Guitar Lesson, 1934 [not in current exhibition] © Balthus
GRIFFIN  Yes, I think depicting people and furniture as sharing a delineated, hard form is a deeply unsettling aspect of Balthus’s work. It’s not that it’s a radical move on his part, but the violent effect of it feels new and almost quasi-pornographic. Picasso breaks up people into planes and lines and we don’t see violence in this, at least from a cozy 21st-century perspective. For a painter who was so preoccupied with the timelessness of classical oil painting techniques, glazing etc., Balthus seems to speak powerfully, but indirectly, to the problems of the 20th Century, specifically how the two world wars affected human consciousness and bodies in space. But then again, how could anyone back then escape being a participant, willing or not, in bloody history?
.      And agreed, The Guitar Lesson is definitely a painting that approaches allegory, myth, and metaphor more than any other work in the Balthus show. Perhaps because it is an image that actually arrests our attention with its upfront, shocking (but still, thankfully, mysterious) content.

CARBONE  I’m very much in agreement with what Vincent says about Magritte and Balthus. Magritte’s metaphysical play remains the work of thought and by contrast Balthus’s the work of feeling. Vincent has also raised my curiosity by bringing up Rodrigo Moynihan. I see him as part of the  “new realism” of the 1960s and ‘70s, where one would find Philip Pearlstein and the early Gabriel Laderman, among others re-engaging with the nature of perception and the formulation of a post-abstract expressionist pictorial language.  For me, Moynihan’s still lives remain external description even as their spareness articulates an abstract structure in the painting’s surface. Consequently, I’m interested in how you relate to Balthus’s animated description of objects.

KATZ  I like your phrase “their spareness articulates an abstract structure” in relation to Moynihan.  I guess it is abstraction, in its widest sense that I am seeing in both Balthus and Moynihan.  True, the significant objects in a Balthus tend to have an almost spiritual animation, as you call it.  But the “less significant” elements of his pictures interest me too, and it is those I’ve tried to bring out — walls, floors, background, tables.  I’m interested in a history of interiors.  If we think of the modern interior, it is interesting to note how light-infused and porous are the genteel interiors of Bonnard and Vuillard, while Picasso and Braque seem to introduce the terse sense of interiors as places of contest and confrontation (even with oneself), significant as sites of intellectual (and possibly sexual) work.  Sex, when implied, becomes part of the intellectual’s work activity, as opposed to a leisure pursuit.  It is into this history of the interior that I believe Balthus and Moynihan both directly fit, albeit with definite differences.


Balthus, Nude with Cat. 1949. Oil on canvas, 25.75 x 31.125 inches. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1952 © Balthus
Balthus, Nude with Cat. 1949. Oil on canvas, 25.75 x 31.125 inches.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1952 © Balthus

CARBONE  As I entered the first room, it felt immediately clear that Sabine Rewald would have liked to have done a much smaller show of just the ten paintings of Thésèse Blanchard. It is a pity that she couldn’t obtain them all. Still, despite their varied virtues, only Thésèse Dreaming is a major work.  Balthus may not have been a card carrying Surrealist but here he has composed the depicted world to force the viewer to participate in the upending of the sentimental Victorian genre of children at play and rest.  Thésèse’s raised leg is the only way into the picture and forces the viewer to look up her skirt. As my eyes explored the picture, I became aware of how everything around Thésèse had been closed down in a manner that followed synthetic cubist thinking.  Is this naivité or sophisticated in a manner closer to Max Ernst’s collage novels or the early Magritte?

COHEN  I find the earlier girl paintings utterly captivating, as images and as painting, and both of course are guilty pleasures.  I wonder if there isn’t indeed some correlation between reworking pre-modern styles and gazing at under-age girls.  Post-1946 I see – occasionally, not always, there are still real gems – excessive stylization for which I’d be curious to know if there is some biographical or career explanation: just when you’d think he’d think he is “in” with his own style he seems to flatten and roughen the picture surface and almost biomorphize the figure (Nude in Front of a Mantel, 1955) as if to keep up with (or at least fractionally approach) the Jones’s of post-war Ecole de Paris.  Was he at all worried about the political associations of the prewar style?  That doesn’t seem in keeping with what one senses of his character.

CARBONE  I agree that the girls are captivating, but I don’t share David Cohen’s guilt, rather I am engaged with the specific moods Balthus is able to reveal in his portraits of Thérèse. As many of you may remember from your own childhood, it is rare for a youth to be seen and treated as a complex human being and that is what I experienced in the first room. There really is a change in ambition that occurs during the Chassy period but I don’t think it has anything to do with keeping up with the post war school of Paris. On the contrary, Balthus refuses to give up the memory of the past and recent past to explore automatism and the “facture” of Tashism with its entropic view of nature, like Wols, (an artist too rarely seen whom I also admire).  In the last room the later paintings that seem successful to me are the large Girl at the Window, of 1955, The Girl in White, from the same year, Nude in Front of a Mantel, also 1955, and finally The Moth from 1959. Le Reve 1, also of 1955, has always been spoiled for me by the spectre’s likeness to Lenor Fini’s special brand of surrealist kitsch. In that series, the Tate’s recent acquisition of The Golden Fruit is successful even though the spectre’s face isn’t.  While I suspect that there may be some idea of the figure’s faces dematerializing in order to stimulate a sense of escaping the self in dream or reverie, I find the idea mostly fails. For me these works are a rebuff to Social Realist painting in Russia, Italy, France and England, indeed to any populist role. Balthus isn’t for everybody, and I suspect he liked it that way.

Balthus, Thérèse, 1938. Oil on cardboard mounted on wood, 39.5 x 32 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987 © Balthus
Balthus, Thérèse, 1938. Oil on cardboard mounted on wood, 39.5 x 32 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987 © Balthus

COHEN  Not that I wish to become the standard bearer of puritanism but my mention of guilt is in relation to the age of consent rather than to eroticism per se, and I was teasing out some linkage – a state of joy uncorrupted – between pedophile imagery and a reversion to premodern painterliness.

HANNAH  The Thérèse room was indeed moving, from her initial forlorn 11 year old self, to a purposeful collaborator with Balthus at 14. That room was the most focused, but the following rooms engaged me just as much, (until the Chassy room, where he goes for a more generalized pastel reverie). The second room’s tableaus of childhood daydreams and indolence, with their very European props (pianos, slippers, couches, wallpapers, silver, rugs, etc.) were orchestrated with great skill. I find him to be one of the great odd colorists, along with Sickert and Gwen John. His tones are always spot-on. All of which adds up to his own world, hermetically sealed while World War II rages outside. To create a signature, identifiable world is no mean feat, all with a minimum of narrative. Bringing the past he loves into the mid-20th century.

KATZ  I still feel there are stronger and weaker paintings in each phase.  As I argued earlier, the painting Thérèse (1938) was the most effective one in that group for me.  I am struck by the wonderfully forceful effect of the cropping (having the subject’s feet go off frame for example) that pushes the figure and her angled chair practically into the viewer’s space.  This feels very modern to me (paradoxically perhaps, as it relies on illusionistic perspective, but this paradox is at the crux of what makes Balthus great) compared to more conventional compositions of Balthus’s, in which the figure is more clearly and remotely situated in an interior space.      As I mentioned earlier, I found The Victim to be one the strongest and most enigmatic pieces in the exhibition.  The Golden Days is another painting I find intriguing.  It was enlightening to be able to compare the study with the final painting and to examine Balthus’s choices and process for arriving at an image.  I found his choice to remove the cat highly effective.  By the way, what do people think of the whole cat thing?  It began to wear on me after a while, especially when they look more like people or birds.  I love how he invented the murky figure in the background of The Golden Days, tending to the fire, and I find the left side of the painting particularly effective, with again, modernist elements in the shapes of wall and furniture and the provocative cropping of table and basin.  As in Thérèse, Balthus uses the table top as a subtle indicator of spatial depth.
.      I find the idea of “guilty pleasures” intriguing.  First of all, do we find these paintings pleasurable, that is to say erotic?  If so, why not just call them “pleasures”?  I don’t think anyone would call them pornography.  If we do not find them erotic, then why not?  The Guitar Lesson is Balthus’s most Surrealist picture, in the sense that it can be rationalized as a psychological fixation.  I found the quote by one his models, Laurence Bataille, that in her sessions posing for Balthus, she “had to lift her dress a little more” each time perfectly captures his essence: it is about liminality and the artist’s attempt to find just that perfect borderline that evokes the obsession without tipping over into it.

Balthus, The Moth, 1959. Casein tempera on canvas, 63.75 x 51.25 inches. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, donated by André and Henriette Gomès in 1985 © Balthus
Balthus, The Moth, 1959. Casein tempera on canvas, 63.75 x 51.25 inches. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, donated by André and Henriette Gomès in 1985 © Balthus

CARBONE  Nora, does “perverse” as applied to Balthus’s use of green-purple-greys in “The Victim” mean that the correct and honest thing to do would be to paint their proper flesh tones? Isn’t this use of color a manifestation of felt metaphor you claim Balthus lacks? And hasn’t it been more than hinted at, not least by Jouve, that this painting was a lament for the war?
.      In the later Balthus there are certainly dialogues with Braque and with Vuillard as well as more remote, pre-renaissance traditions. For example, The Moth is a painting I find fascinating. Can we still say this is a young girl? Isn’t this what you might call one of his “agonizingly stylized” figures?  When you look at Balthus’s working drawings you see him constantly reshaping both gesture and form moving far from dogged description. If we are to find allegory and myth in Balthus, we have to look to the larger world art traditions that from the very beginning inspired him. In this case the Mosaics in Monreale, where Balthus has fused the proportions of both Adam and Eve into one figure.
.      Although I acknowledge the scrupulous research into Balthus’s life that Sabine Rewald has accomplished, her efforts have forced biography onto the paintings in such a way as to flatten all meaning into confession and this has obscured much of the pleasure to be found in the paintings as paintings with layered meanings and not just some vague idea of “formal research”. This is the Oprah Winfrey version of art history.

KARDON  Perversity is merely a deconstruction of acceptability. Perversity is at the heart of postmodernism and as an idea really became visible in the 1980’s with the rise of the AIDS epidemic and the difficult acceptance of homosexuality by the heterosexual world. Since it has to do its initial work in the closet, it is a quality that allows art to be subversive. Labeling something as perverse is an attempt to separate it from the discourse, to pretend that it isn’t a part of “normal” consciousness. If you think what suddenly became visible in the ’80s, especially in America, you not only have Balthus, but Otto Dix, Henry Darger, and Lucian Freud who really wasn’t known in America at the time unless one had been to the UK. And of course, Mapplethorpe, and Serrano, who really opened the door to visibility for the others. I believe 80s postmodernism brought Balthus back into the discourse and the reason we are discussing him now.

Balthus, Nude in Front of a Mantel, 1955. Oil on canvas, 75 x 64.5 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection © Balthus
Balthus, Nude in Front of a Mantel, 1955. Oil on canvas, 75 x 64.5 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection © Balthus

COHEN  An analogy that occurs to me in regards to my earlier thoughts about authentic utterance within a superseded mode of expression, is of writing poetry in a “dead” language (placed in quotes because as soon as you write a new poem in Latin, say, the language is by definition re-enlivened – assuming there is some life in your poetry.)

KATZ  I think maybe the analogy would be to a poet writing poems in a supposedly “dead” form — as the sonnet was considered not too long ago.  Not many poets I know could write a poem in Latin; only Latinists could, and few of them are poets.  Which is an interesting point.  How many painters could have achieved what Balthus did — technically and in term of social meaning?  On those terms, he really is unique, if maybe an acquired taste.

KEE This idea strikes a chord. My first thought was that that would be the sort of poet who would have to belong to some sort of club where his efforts would be appreciated. And I suppose that is my last thought on Balthus – he leaves me feeling that you are either in or you’re out. The most insight into his work definitely comes from those who are “in”, and I have been very moved by the exceptional comments from those among this roundtable who have a true and hard-earned understanding of Balthus’s work and contribution.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, c.1782.?Oil on canvas, 121 x 147 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts.
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, c.1782.?Oil on canvas, 121 x 147 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts.

CARBONE  I think this analogy to writing poetry in a dead language is an answer to the continuing relevance of painting and by extension to Balthus and our time. Painting has been declared dead in every generation since the French revolution, or so it seems. Regardless, painting seems to remain the most elastic language/medium of all, allowing an unlimited range of expressive possibilities. Goggle Balthus images and flip back and forth between photographers who have restaged Balthus paintings, every one of them is pornographic, unlike their painted models. This to me is another proof of the intellectual “flatness” of discussing paintings only as images and subject matter and ignoring how paintings  reshape reality through the culture and sensibility, let alone skill, of an artist, and create affect.
.      For me, a great wall of works in this exhibition is in the third room centering on the magical The Room of 1947-48 flanked by The Week of Four Thursdays and Nude with a Cat, both of 1949. Like Balthus’s later great tenebrist work of 1952-54, The Room is in conversation with Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare in Detroit. The earlier painting in the Hirshhorn Museum seems to me to also be inspired by another work of Fuseli’s, a drawing titled “The Fireplace”, in a private English collection. It features a large woman in a chemise flanked by two smaller, almost fairy-like, servant girls.  The paint shears away the adult fetishism of Fuseli and presents us with a pulsing interior that exists beyond the laws of projective geometry. if one follows the spatial implications of the fireplace and the wall it is embedded in, one should find a sharp corner behind the standing girl. Instead, the the standing girl fills almost the whole height of the painting, and in conjuction with the close harmony of glowing warm tones, seems to both be around her and within her at once. This willed palpitation is confirmed by the ambiguous construction of her right breast which is and isn’t. Such a device sends a sign of Balthus’s use of non finite paint handling seen here in the hand. As we can tell from related pictures, the girl is not looking at us but into a large mirror, which is the painting. The pictorial palpitations signal the unnamable feelings she senses. We are invited to see ourselves as her, for we are on the other side of the looking glass. Somewhere Balthus has said “To a certain extent, you have to become what you paint or draw in order to express it better. Great Western art is not the art that represents things but the one that identifies with them.” In this Balthus echoes Dante.

Balthus, Girl at a Window, 1955. Oil on canvas, 77.125 x 51.375 inches. Private collection © Balthus
Balthus, Girl at a Window, 1955. Oil on canvas, 77.125 x 51.375 inches. Private collection © Balthus

KATZ  This elegant exegesis on Fuseli makes clear something we had not touched on earlier — the element of magic in Balthus.   By then, Balthus’s sense of interior (and importantly also of exterior, with the paintings of Frédérique looking out the window) changed drastically and become more modern, in the sense of being patterned, two-dimensional surfaces.

HANNAH  I love Carbone’s Balthus quote, “Great western art is not the art that represents things but the one that identifies with them”. Balthus certainly achieved this absorption into his work, giving him the “authenticity” that Cohen noted earlier on. I also love Carbone’s memory of seeing his first Balthus, and saying “I felt seen”
Much has been said about Balthus’s so-called perversity in these exchanges. I’ve always had the notion that the voyeuristic gaze in these paintings was that of another child, perhaps Balthus’s 12 year old self, not that of a predatory adult. It is the same atmosphere as Nabokov’s novel “ADA”, the unconsummated but hot-house passion between two cousins in a stately home. In fact, a couch plays a very vivid part in the book, as the two children watch a fire out the window.  I posited this theory to Ms. Rewald years ago at the Studio School, and she said I was very naive. Perhaps I am, but that is still the way that I read his paintings. Balthus is a guy who wished never to grow up, so he looks back to the golden days of his youth for the raw materiel of his subject matter. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes also parallels Balthus themes.
.      It’s unfortunate that his controversial subject matter is all that most people will see. To me, he was heroic in waving a tattered banner for an alternative route into  art history’s future, bucking against the conformity of the prevailing trends. sui generis. Each of his paintings is composed of hundreds of aesthetic decisions, which reveal as much as how he feels about painting, as they do about the content. The roughness of the paint gives me a satisfaction I never get from Magritte, who many have been discussing here. His open-endedness draws me in, whereas Magritte’s way of nailing it all down shuts me out. In that regard, Balthus is generous, allowing the viewer to make visual connections where something is only suggested (see the bench in Thérèse on a Bench). I am always surprised to see how chewy his surfaces are when seeing them in person, since they compress so neatly in reproduction. These are not illustrations. They are the work of an eccentric artist fully immersed in his task.

KARDON  I take back what I said about the show losing momentum after Thérèse, as the two Girl at a Window paintings as well as Golden Afternoon both give us sharp contrasts of the shallow space of the interior as contrasted with the bright expansive and beckoning landscapes seen out the window. But mainly it is his creation of a painting as mental companion into which he can fill with his own sense of emptiness, and escape loneliness by concentrating on the sensation of creating representation through the experience of transferring the goo of paint onto canvas from a hairy stick. He makes innovation seem beside the point. His first show at 26 where he hoped to engage the world through the intentional provocation of The Guitar Lesson was a bust (though the show could have used the inclusion if just to show how he moved away from that intentional perversity).

Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming,1938. Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 © Balthus
Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming,1938. Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 © Balthus

KARDON  Duncan pointed out to me the cat licking the saucer. The flash of tongue is accomplished by the slightest tonal flicker, and if there must be eros in this painting this moment is where it occurs. A very precise flash of movement in a painting that is existing in an eternal stillness. And yes, I will argue that it makes sense that the onset of menses breaks the spell of childhood the way the cat’s lapping breaks the spell of stillness in the painting. It is the way Balthus subverts theatricality through absorption and painterly invention that keeps these paintings from becoming distancing. The theatricality of the gestures is merely a subversive way of keeping the beholder in tension with the painting. Also observe the fire iron in Golden Days. Another of my details, it is a little dark phallic woman who mediates between the narcissistic girl on the couch and the man/boy stoking the fire of passion. The tension between the absorptive theatricality of the girl and the absorptive labor of the guy really provide quite an amazing tableau to explore. I am also surprised no one has mention Watteau, a major model for Manet in the 1860’s, whose presence first hit me in the Gilles like presence of the nude in the room. If you think about the vignettes of Watteau interiorized and pushed into the Freudian 20th Century, you will get my point.

GRIFFIN  Dennis, I’m glad you bring up Watteau and Manet. After leaving the Balthus exhibit I headed straight for Manet’s The Spanish Singer (1860) and Boy Carrying a Sword (1861). Besides the obvious references to Piero della Francesca’s geometrical faces/bodies, I also thought of Manet’s signature grayish-brown fade background that so many of his figures are embedded in, without the slightest hint of a real room or interior. This to me is pure theatricality in paint — a push/pull between the finely detailed and anonymous figure (friend/relative? actor? model?) and the 19th century equivalent of a green screen. I’m drawn to the Balthus works that push this tension the most, but I find that the inclusion of “story” however slight, into the picture plane leaves not enough room for me to dream as I enter the painting. For me there is more mystery, and hence more power, in the weird starkness of Manet’s portraits. They are deeply thoughtful, but are thankfully pre-“psychological” in the Freudian sense of the term.
I’m also surprised that the idea of the girl getting her period in Thérèse Dreaming from the way the paint is handled should elicit debate or discussion. It feels like searching for clues in tea leaves; sure you can do it, but why? and how does it open up the painting’s true content? The overall image is so much more powerful than these isolated moments. I guess this might be why, for me, Balthus is more interesting to look at in reproductions than in real life. A few years later and Francis Bacon was pushing the paint-blood relationship to shocking effect, demanding the full attention of a viewer the way a Balthus (to me) never demands.

KEE  From the conversation so far, it seems a given that the challenging issues raised by Balthus’s work, namely those associated with the desirability and sexuality of early adolescent women, are legitimate as subject matter for painting.
.      I think, however, I would be among those female viewers (of whom Sabine Rewald is subtly dismissive in her essay) who don’t connect to Balthus for a number of reasons. I don’t mind saying that the attitude towards sexuality it expresses is one of them. My distaste springs from the same point I fear I have belabored – that there is something detached and programmatic in Balthus, and hence something a shade insincere, and – i’ll say it- creepy in his claustrophobic scenarios. These rooms aren’t necessarily nice places for a woman to project herself into as a viewer.
.      I think a mostly unaddressed point might be worth following up on here as well, as I believe it was Vincent who asked, what’s up with the cats? The show title, an intentionally tawdry-sounding one I would presume, certainly isn’t shy about them. David Carbone emphasized how they suggest the existence of instinctive, “animalistic” aspects of human nature. And there is no lack of other “cat” associations at the ready: sly, stealthful, playful, coy, shadow-seeking. In Rewald’s essay she points out other associations cats have had in painting – as influences aligned with latent, dark, feminine sexuality, the corruption of innocence and even evil. In short – the cats in the paintings evoke the same clichéd caricature of feminine sexuality that women have been dealing with for years. And yes, they are also surely a stand in for the painter, who allows them to loll, lick and frolic in ways that make his desire explicit. I find their grinning depictions sort of sentimental, even silly.
.      There is of course the age question. Youth is beauty, and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with artists from Nabakov to Carroll to Courbet to Mann recognizing this, or even, – within the “safe” medium of art – in exploring the more dangerous question of the nature of sexuality before it is fulfilled in a mature sexual being. Balthus’s near single-mindedness in the choice of his models and subjects is troubling to me. I can’t help but feel that in his consistent choice of schoolgirl models, which I believe lasted pretty much his whole life, there is an implied dismissal of adult women, those perhaps his equal, as worthy subject matter. Balthus is a painter obsessed with a specific, fleeting moment of beauty, and his works are steeped in the anxiety of its passing.

Balthus, The Salon I, 1941-43. Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 57.75 inches. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and William Hood Dunwoody Fund © Balthus
Balthus, The Salon I, 1941-43. Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 57.75 inches. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and William Hood Dunwoody Fund © Balthus

KATZ  Thank you, Christina, for these detailed and personal responses — and I must say, for the bravery of them.  Your statement that “These aren’t nice places for a woman to project herself” was something that needed to be said.  And not just for women.  I have to say that Carroll’s images of Alice Liddell always seem to me to be filled with adoration as opposed to desire.  I’m not sure how, but he is able to project love onto his subject through the medium of photography.  (This is of course always apart from whatever may or may not have actually happened in real life between artist and subject).  Sally Mann is definitely someone we should consider in this context.  Her kids are sexual, sensual, beings looked at by her with a mix of awe, admiration, and surprise.  Your point about Balthus’s implied dismissal of adult women is very cogent; I hadn’t thought of it from that angle.  But your next sentence, “Balthus is a painter obsessed with a specific, fleeting moment of beauty, and his works are steeped in the anxiety of its passing,” which I think is marvelous, actually is an argument in his favor, in my opinion.  It brings out the tragic side to his work, which is little commented on in general.

CARBONE  I strongly agree with Vincent about Christina’s cogent summing up of Balthus’s obsession. And there certainly are other things Nora has mentioned that I would have liked to explore further. The fact that Balthus did paint both of  his wives makes me regret the absence of  the pictures based on Setsuko finished in 1976, after a ten year gestation.  Here are images of an adult woman in works that seem filled with a sense of fatality, that anxiety of being that underscores Christina’s acute comments for me. Finally, and more to the point of the show, I greatly miss the inclusion of Cat and Mirror #1, 1977-1980, a great picture that can stand alongside late Braque or Bonnard; its embodiment of the enchantment of a child’s world is set against its incandescent, ghostly colors that appear to retreat into the fresco-like surface, as sea foam sinks into sand.