Dr. David Cowan
It is not enough today for celebrities and others to shout #MeToo, the history of art it now appears is to be subject to the same retrospective scrutiny. The reason? Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, better known as Balthus (1908-2001). The picture causing the stir is his Thérèse Dreaming, which shows a prepubescent girl in a languorous and erotic pose. The location causing the stir is the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Last month, Anna Zuccaro (26) and Mia Merrill (30) launched an online petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove the painting. Either that, or at least change the way that it is presented.
Ms Merrill, a former art history student at New York University and feminist activist, states in her petition “When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past weekend, I was shocked to see a painting that depicts a young girl in a sexually suggestive pose.” And “It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image” that “romanticizes the sexualization of a child.” Then they get to their main point, “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.”
Conscious of the artistic sensitivities around censorship and destruction, the petitioners changed their tune slightly. Having launched a petition for removal they shifted to a demand that the museum “be more conscientious in how they contextualize.” In other words, they want the viewer to be told what to think about the painting, or perhaps they think the average art gallery viewer to be too puerile themselves to understand and process the obvious eroticism of the piece. The petition currently has over 11,500 signatures.
What of the art itself? Balthus used as his model Thérèse Blanchard, the daughter of a neighboring restaurant worker. She modeled over three years for 10 paintings, starting in 1936 when she was a mere 11 years old. She posed for Thérèse Dreaming aged about 12 or 13. Writing about a Balthus exhibit at the Met in 2013, art critic Peter Schjeldahl suggested, “Looking at the paintings, I kept thinking of a line by Oscar Wilde: ‘A bad man is the sort of man who admires innocence.’”
Largely self-taught, Balthus learned from copying paintings and frescoes in Italy. He was mainly influenced by two disparate sources, Piero della Francesca and the realist Gustave Courbet. We see this confluence in his painting of The Guitar Lesson (1934), which shows a woman with a prepubescent girl draped across her lap. The woman’s right breast is exposed as she holds the girl’s head up by her hair in her right hand and her left hand is placed close to the girl’s genitals as if playing an instrument. A later drawing of the same pose has a man replacing the woman, as he tugs at the little clothing she has with his mouth. The original picture is an echo of La Pieta de Villeneuve-les-Avignons (c.1470) in the Louvre, which shows Christ in a reclined position cared for by nuns. The theme of sacred love is clear, but Balthus adds an erotic charge for the modern viewer.
If one works through the oeuvre of Balthus one finds a whole catalogue of such erotically charged pictures of girls seemingly too young, and many with looks far too knowing, to leave much doubt of Balthus’s Weinstein qualities. However, they also raise the question of innocence and what critics see as a bourgeois view of sexuality. There are many such paintings, such as Young Girl with a Cat; Balthus had a thing about cats as well. That picture is echoed in one of the famous Pears Soap advertisements, in 1901. Of course, the interplay of art, eroticism, pornography and advertising is hardly new.
The Met has said it will not take the painting down nor will it provide a narrative or “contextualization” for the picture, beyond the current descriptor of title, artist, year, and the model’s name and age. These works have been in plain view for decades; indeed, last November I attended two exhibitions featuring Balthus in Paris, at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Centre. Like Harvey Weinstein, everyone knew before there was something erotically charged about the prepubescent portrayals painted by Balthus.
What worries me is the demand that the interpretation of art should be canonized, and in this respect I’m with the Met on this one. It is troublesome that today’s activists are starting to cleanse art, a struggle once undertaken by the church (which now has to put up with crucifixes immersed in urine) and trampled on by modernity. It seems we have the emergence of a postmodern secular puritanism that lacks a narrative against which to measure taste and morals. The Met petition may only have 11,500 names, but I suspect the art world can expect a whole lot more.