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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Notes on Balthus

Why does Picasso not earn the same sideways hurled accusations, as the younger painter Balthus?

Balthus, (birth named Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) was a Polish-French aristocrat turned artist who is almost universally loathed by modernist painters and critics. I'm not addressing his merits as a painter, merely his success at making social commentary, and in particular, commentary on art history. If Balthus gets you to think a certain way it's because he's pointed out that you are thinking that way. In this painting. he's shown properly clad models painted in an academic tone, to make a point, and succeeded.

True, his paintings show a luscious reverence for academic image construction. His touch is indeed is much like Andre Derain, an older painter, and a friend, but one who was perhaps even more academic in his approach to art. Balthus certainly never overtly utilized the new territories laid out by Cezanne or Matisse, certainly not Picasso, in either color, or construction of space, though he certainly could have. He lived much later, was born in 1908 and died in 2001.

If Matisse at the end of his career might seem to represent society's new large museum with glass walls and infusions of light made possible by a new architecture, and inspired by broad spacious Deco buildings of his home city in Nice, Balthus remained fascinated with the dusty dirty attics of provincial French aristocratic life. His is a heavy heritage of furniture, class structure, habits, sibling relationships, and an archetypal inheritance bordering on psychosis. This is not to mention a career long fascination with sexuality, which he confronts directly in many of his canvases.

Whereas modernism wished to sweep the attic of art history and trash its contents, Balthus wanted to pore over what he found, and focus in particular on whatever he found most troubling. He points out, that whatever modernism brings, it cannot in a brief stroke even hope to expel the old heavy thoughts inherited from an earlier age. He forces their resurfacing in the viewer.

This is Balthus's milieu, and he purposefully keeps his palate and construction academic, drawing from a portfolio of techniques employed by Corot, early Degas, and even early Cezanne. But his subject is not about painterly construction, or painted space. It is rather psychological, and subjective, revealing of the inner mind of the viewer most of all.

Many who are uncomfortable around the heavily wrought tones of his canvases will wonder about the fascination for young women. Perhaps it is the lack of humor that Balthus's critics find so disconcerting. Perhaps it's because he reads your mind.

What society loathes most of all is a portrait of how it thinks (Balthus), not a portrait of how it would like to act, (Picasso).

We never stop to hurl accusations of pornography at Ingres, or Picasso. Why not?

Think hard, where is the sexual repression, or abuse or even commentary on these topics, in this painting? I'm not saying it's not there, I'm just asking where is it?

Is it merely in the slim somewhat uncovered and possibly inviting legs of the young girls, one napping, another doing homework or writing a letter?

I'm not saying that sexual subject matter isn't there, or that these aren't repetitive themes in Balthus's body of work. Instead I'm saying he's embedded these thoughts into the fabric of the painting in ways that are much more sophisticated than one would overtly think. Indeed as Scott Hunt noted, he's tricked us.

At first glance one might say the edge of the table seeming to invade the body of the girl sitting on the couch, is doing so as a sort of phallic form.

But when I look at the painting that's not what i see. I first see that sideways bit of table looks much more like the body of a guitar resting on the young girl's lap. The latter is a historical motif used by artists for centuries.

Balthus plays with these painterly conventions, by weaving human figures with man-made forms, and architectural environments, to show us that the mores of human relationships in France and indeed the civilized world are maintained through architecture, furniture, objects and most of all, art history.

The posture of the girl napping is in ways the only comfortable posture offered by that type of French furniture, ubiquitous throughout well-to-do France. If her posture seems sexually inviting, then Balthus must be saying, 'Look we made this. We built it this way to make our women look like this! The girls are in this space in the only way that they can be!"

For as surely as one couch design may make a woman curvaceous, on another she will seem available, and yet another may force her to take a warlike and aggressive posture, ready for action.

Through metaphor, Balthus may be commenting, 'Art History makes you think this way,' and thus by implication 'By thinking this way you are contributing to Art History!'

The feet of the same table, seeming to push the girl on the floor down like some kind of oppressive foot tangled into her hair and the back of her brain. . . again he's showing that when camouflaged amidst an interior environment, which in turn has become the interior mind of much European art, from Chardin, to Ingres, to Degas & Matisse (all quoted by vignettes in the upper half of canvas), the human forms strewn about like furniture and objects suddenly become sexual, with a somewhat violent undertone, as if human innocence is abused and defiled by the oppressive art-history of the man-made world.

All of this seems to be boiling turbulently and injecting itself into the head of the girl on the floor, funneling of a dream through the device of the table, welded to the back of her head by the table feet likened to her hair:

Is the set-motif in the top of the canvas a dream-reverie of the girl positioned on the floor? Indeed she may in fact be imagining herself asleep amongst the props of art-history, napping in an Ingres-like swoon on a curvy French chaise, bolted to the wainscoting of her parent's home, tied to her piano, her fruit, her mirror, and her table, which is useless for homework or drawing because it is so cluttered, and her imaginary guitar, whose frets are covered with cloth.

Perhaps the portrait is only of the girl on the floor, who like children everywhere, seize the architecture of a space and use it as it is best and most conveniently used, in this case the floor is most useful.She's attacking her artwork, or writing, cat-like, with the dream of herself planted at the back of her mind.

Is she doing homework? Writing? Is it a small notebook? Or a single piece of paper? Balthus leaves this question unanswered. The slim shadow of the girl's forearm falls exactly across the gutter of a would-be notebook. Scribbles appear at the left, which leaves us to speculate, 'She is drawing!'

"Whatever she's writing or drawing, she cannot escape, her life, her mind, her dreams, or the projections of art history!'

He's taken the notion of violent sexuality and turned it on it's ear, into an invective against the history of art, against class, against architecture.

These young women are as caught by that interior, as are the threads of the rug on the floor.

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