There’s a new exhibition, awash in epiphanies and euphoria we’re assured, titled Derain, Balthus, Giacometti: An Artistic friendship. It’s at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and it runs through October 29th, 2017.
Balthus is a controversial artist. His 1934 painting Guitar Lesson for example depicts an adult female, presumably the guitar teacher, mutually masturbating with a pre-pubertal female student.
Does Guitar Lesson fit the prevailing federal standards for child pornography as depicted in United States v. Dost? A compelling argument could certainly be made that it does. That argument alone however is hardly decisive.
A recent review of the exhibition published in the New York Review of Books calls Balthus [one of] the most powerful minds and imaginations of twentieth-century art. [He turned landscapes, still lifes…nudes…] into haunted dreamscapes, by turns strenuous, serene, and ecstatic.
Art perforates reality, soaring to metaphorical peaks or devolving into abstractions. The controversy with Balthus however is not about the limits of his imagination. It’s about his relationship with the young female models that he eroticized. To now lament that Balthus has been misunderstood as a chic pornographer (whatever that means) is facile at best.
Did Balthus use pre-and post-pubertal female models? The evidence suggests that he did. He had, in fact, a sexual relationship with one these teenage girls. Even approaching the age of 90 Balthus was still taking nude Polaroid photographs of a young female model that posed for his paintings.
Why would an adult man eroticize a pre-or post-pubertal girl? The most common answer is pedophilia.
Does artistic talent mitigate pedophilia? If male doctors, lawyers, Congressmen, police officers, teachers, priests and Prime Ministers can be pedophiles, artists can be too.
Photographs and paintings of nude children are the detritus of pedophilia. They serve as enhancements to masturbation and facilitate the solicitation of sexual abuse victims. Though we often presume that child pornography must depict adult-child or child-child sexual intercourse, United States v. Dost demonstrates otherwise.
Was Balthus a pedophile? It seems plausible. Keep in mind that there are also economic reasons to reject the epithet, fearing perhaps that his paintings would drop precipitously in value.
Whether one considers Balthus’s paintings to be sublime or disjunctive is ultimately irrelevant. People have reason to despise Balthus; others focus squarely on the art.
Both perspectives are nevertheless imperatives; they are the engines that drive perception. To diminish one side or the other makes a mockery of the evaluative process.
Seeing is believing. Some people however can’t believe what they see.