Balthus’ provocative poses

One of modern art's lions shows us that sexual moments and nudity aren't necessarily erotic.

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex,

Balthus' provocative poses

Surrounded as we are by blatant and pervasive sex, looking back at the work of Balthus can give us respite — and a more nuanced, playful vision of eroticism.

All the great modernist painters of the 20th century — Picasso, Dali, Matisse — drew frequently from the female nude and erotic themes for their art. Balthazar Klossowski, aka Balthus, presented a new vision that blended explicitly erotic and high art. His paintings are full of women and girls with their bodies on display, but they meander between the erotic and a direct confrontation of his audience. One of his hallmarks is a testy, teasing, relationship with his audience as he pulls them between considerations of the sexual and exquisite compositions in the same moment.

A new book is out from Rizzoli to accompany the largest exhibit of his work (now at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice through Jan. 6, 2002) and to commemorate his death in February, 2001.

Balthus’ most notorious and compelling painting, “The Guitar Lesson,” is a perfect example of his vision. It presents a woman with a girl draped over her lap. The girl’s skirt has ridden up to her belly as the woman pulls her hair and has her hand poised over the girl’s vagina. The girl’s hand is raised to pinch the woman’s erect nipple.

In a letter as he was preparing the painting Balthus described it as “a rather ferocious one.” “It’s an erotic scene. But you have to understand, it is not in the least quirky, none of the usual little naughtiness you show around under cover with winks and nudges. No, I want to proclaim in broad daylight, with sincerity and feeling, all the throbbing tragedy of a drama of the flesh, proclaim vociferously, the deep-rooted laws of instinct. Thus to return to the passionate content of art. Down with the hypocrites!”

The son of a highly cultivated family and a pupil and friend of renowned German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Balthus arrived on the scene a young 26 at a fevered moment in the history of art. He had been a painter since he was 16, encouraged by a mother who also painted. He was also surrounded by many major cultural figures such as Rilke, who helped publish his first ink drawings in 1921, and painter Pierre Bonard, who further nurtured his talent.

As he gained his first successes as a painter in 1934, modernist art movements captivated Europe. The Bauhaus and expressionist movements had swept Germany, futurists were ardently followed by the cultural elite and future dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy, while France played host to a grand collection of artists and intellectuals like Man Ray, Picasso and Matisse. Most major artistic and creative movements in Europe were focused on defining the new and breaking from the old, classical orders that dominated 19th century culture.

While nearly all of these artists and groups were drawn to the erotic in one way or the other, Balthus made it his priority to present it as high art. His was a constant campaign to bring two potentially disparate camps together; for him they probably coexisted naturally. He called the erotic the “passionate content of art” and he gave it a passionate form. “The Guitar Lesson” is a rigorously classical composition, one borrowed from the pietá in the Western tradition, dressed with references to Dutch still life paintings and thoroughly informed by classical perspective. By combining his own sense of eroticism with formal elegance, Balthus got to have his cake and eat it too.

Balthus also played with nudes, confronting the viewer with the implied question: what is more erotic, nudity or suggestion? “Alice in the Mirror” confronts you with a seminude woman, her naked pubes at the exact center of the painting and a breast staring back at you. But her eyes are a dirty, cloudy blue that almost obscures the pupils entirely and suggests either an ethereal calm or complete removal.

The centrality of the nudity in this painting puts sex front and center, but there’s also the setting of the painting: Alice stands with one foot on a chair in a bare corner brushing out her hair. For a contemporary viewer it might elicit ruminations about how women’s identities are tied to their bodies or how we use nudity as a symbol for sex, but the original buyer, Pierre Jean Jouve, thought otherwise and described the painting as “having such an intense carnality, that I considered ‘Alice’ as being my companion.”

But Balthus plays a two-front game. He’s not merely concerned with carnality but with an exquisite form or vehicle for that eroticism. Despite his comments about “The Guitar Lesson” he also made other, more accommodating remarks that demonstrate his keen sense that his paintings’ subject matter might obscure the grace of their execution. In a letter about “Alice in the Mirror” he wrote, “I don’t believe it is obscene and I think the grave, severe atmosphere it is steeped in is such that even a young girl can look at it without blushing.”

It’s the clothed women in Balthus’ paintings that appear most erotically charged. In “Therese” a young girl stares languidly out of the canvas as her skirt slides up her thigh. A companion painting of the same model shows her sitting with eyes closed and legs open so that you can see her underwear as a cat laps milk from a bowl in the foreground.

Still other paintings of the same model like “Therese on a Bench-seat” feature her alone and oblivious to the viewer, apparently in a moment of quiet contemplation or lazy repose while her skirt inches up her thigh. Your eye moves instantly to the point where the skirt stands ready to reveal more — both because that’s the land of erotic potential, but also because Balthus has used composition, drawn it seems from early Dutch portraiture, that draws a viewer’s eyes where he wants them.

Balthus was forever borrowing and twisting the past into his version of an incredibly erotically charged present. You sense a man in full charge of his obsessions who gains even more power and release from playing his fantasies out on canvas and having viewers, buyers and connoisseurs share in his game and pleasure. Indeed, he painted erotic subjects right up to his death in February. His last, unfinished painting depicts a nude woman asleep on a couch, a mandolin about to fall from her hand.

That’s what’s so extraordinary for a contemporary viewer. Today we can easily find pornography to fulfill carnal urges. And artists today used nudity for political purposes as well as titillation. But it’s rare to find an artist both skilled and daring enough to breathe a vivid life into his erotic fantasies with formal elegance.

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>