The Balthus Enigma

Balthus By Damian Pettigrew (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known to most as Balthus, remains the most enigmatic of painters. His work seems outside the major visual movements of the past century. His is a modernism of a revival of old masters techniques with the psychological acumen of Freud. His paintings work like a foreign language, the meanings hidden until we learn to read them properly. Yet, nothing is truly hidden in Bathus’s paintings, except the viewer’s own prejudices which causes many to be drawn up short when coming across his work.
Balthus is too often regarded as a painter of prurient eroticism, of young girls in provocative poses. This is mistaking the surface for what the paintings are about. Are Thérèse on a Bench Seat or Thérèse Dreaming really nothing more than paintings of eroticised adolescence? Or is there something more going on? It would be best to contrast these works with Surrealism. Breton in his manifesto described Surrealism as, “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought.” Balthus is very much interested in the psychological. Unlike Dali, Andre Masson or Rene Magritte, however, Balthus is not interested in depicting the mechanisms of the psychic automatism of thought. Balthus is instead a contemporary of the novelist André Gide and Charles Fourier’s 19th century utopianism.

Therese DreamingThérèse on a Bench Seat
For Balthus, adolescence is a time where children come into their own. It has its own dynamism, that frisson of energy when a new self emerges and possesses the world around it. Wuthering Heights is a keystone for Balthus. Emily Brontë’s novel is a depiction, if in hysterical fashion, of how adolescence creates its own customs and sense of time. Thérèse in the paintings is a depiction of that adolescent vitality and psychic emergence, where erotic energy is channeled into what Guy Davenport, in his provocative A Balthus Notebook, describes as an “an endless afternoon of reading, playing cards, and daydreaming.” For Balthus — as for writers Alain-Fournier and Cocteau, as well — children live in their minds and contour the world and themselves around those games, afternoons and daydreams. There is an eerie stillness in emerging adolescence that Balthus captures. We are glimpsing, just for a moment, that interior self-sufficiency of the adolescent, where body, mind and world are united and creating a unique space of possibilities.

Thérèse 1938

Pause for a moment over Thérèse. Balthus paints her leaning back in an armchair. Her face is apparently turned toward the viewer, but not (if one looks closely) focused directly either on the painter, whom she is supposedly gazing towards, or us. Her pose is relaxed and understated. Raised and crossed on top her right leg, her left is relaxed with her left hand placed on the knee. Balthus’s capturing of light on her legs and face, the careful working out of such details as her hands, clothing and Thérèse’s gaze all suggest a girl within her own world. The armchair, the table and its wrinkled covering, the wall behind her are now part of the interior world of Thérèse. Thérèse is wholly within herself, looking at herself. She is far removed from Watteau’s Diana Bathing. Diana, while alone like Thérèse, is never unaware of the gaze of another. Thérèse cares not a wit for another’s gaze. Balthus’s adolescents with their provocative poses are not seeking to be gazed at, but instead gaze into their own world. The world around them is then remade in that interior view. One is reminded of Courbet’s portrait of his sister, Juliette, who possesses the same self-satisfied gaze and glance one finds in Balthus. Balthus obviously was influenced by that work.

Nude on a Chaise Longue 1950 by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) 1908-2001

Nude on a Chaise Longue is another painting that captures this moment, a variation, I believe, on the earlier Thérèse paintings. Here a female figure wearing only white knee socks and red slippers is on a chaise longue. She is stretched across the longue with her head back, eyes closed and one arm raised above her and another down towards the floor. Her hair is loose. The colours are muted. The female figure’s age is indeterminate. Like Thérèse, the female figure is within her own world. Body, mind and place are one within the painting. Possibilities of an emerging physical, psychological and sexual realm abound, but never is one realm privileged over another. Balthus’s old master techniques, his chiaroscuro lighting effects, his colour palate and his near architectural placement the objects in the room and the placement of the female figure bring all three realms together.
It is a mistake to see Balthus as focusing only on the sexual. Balthus often said that his paintings had no overt sexuality. I think he was not so much denying such sexuality existed, but that is was not the only thing his paintings were about, or even what they were about at all. The sexuality in Balthus is never vulgar or cheap. It is strangely protective as the gaze of all the girls is private and inward, never outward or beckoning. It is only the person who fails to understand or to truly experience what Balthus is doing and instead forces Balthus into a single meaning — in most cases today one of prurience and admonition against adolescence having any kind of healthy and meaningful interior life that is not circumscribed by adult expectations or worries over innocence and experience — that will miss what makes Balthus important.

Charles Ives: Still Waiting To Be Discovered


Charles Edward Ives 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ives is still not welcomed in the concert hall. One of the most significant American composers of last century is without a place among listeners and performers of serious music. His symphonies, string quartets and piano music are performed rarely, and recordings tend to be sporadic. Labels such as difficult, uncompromising and incomprehensible are often attached to his music. Even during his lifetime, Ives’ passionate followers and supporters were outnumbered by those who claimed his music was either mad, juvenile or, if more kindly disposed, just plain weird. Musicians often said his music was impossible to play.

He has not been helped by attempts to make his music more ‘normal,’ smoothing out the dissonance and anarchic qualities, his juxtaposition of high and low, of combining the most rarefied of classical traditions with American folk and popular music of the time. Or by attempts to make his music a precursor to the modernism of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The reality is that many of the ‘modernist’ elements of Ives’ music were attempts to capture the political and social events of his time. David Wooldridge’s neglected and now sadly-out-of-print study, From The Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, makes the explicit argument that Ives was a man deeply influenced, even when in opposition, to the American political and social landscape, to its literature and most profoundly to the ideals set forth by the American Transcendentalists:

“Ives had a comprehension of America’s seers and poets . . . Among these: enormous respect for Emerson, enormous admiration for Hawthorne, enormous affection for Alcott, total identification with Thoreau — these were his favorites . . . Yet more than any other it is Melville who foreshadows Ives in the use of an extended rhetoric to American man. The progressions of Ives’s music, like Melville’s prose, are born on a living speech rhythm, not on someone else’s verse. But with Ives, a Yankee speech rhythm. A collage of musical vernacular transfigured.” Wooldridge, pg. 5.

When Ives writes in his Alcott piece in Essays Before A Sonata, quoting Emerson’s son, E.W. Emerson, on how Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to the United States Court House in Boston to rescue a fugitive slave, Ives is clearly evoking that incident in the Alcott movement of his masterpiece Concord Sonata. Ives says of the incident that “helps confirm the theory — not a popular one — that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues . . .” Wooldridge, pg. 278.

To fully understand Ives and to grasp his achievements, one has come to an understanding of his engagement with his times and the works that formed the core of his being. It goes some way to explaining his neglect in concert hall repertoires today. Ives is a man clearly trying in his music to grasp and understand what is happening in his country and to evoke other paths set out by the Transcendentalist who provoke his deep admiration and influence his own sense of self and purpose. I would argue that to fully grasp Ives one needs to fully grasp Emerson Divinity School Address or later wrote “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” or Thoreau who writes “American liberty has become a fiction of the past — as it is to some extent a fiction of the present . . .” What may make Ives’s music difficult for some is this ceaseless questioning of the ‘myth’ of liberty. The too easy invocation of liberty today would likely have offended Ives deeply, seeing it as an empty term thrown about by all sorts of political and social elites. In a 1923 letter to Gilbert Seldes of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Ives writes he is not disappointed in America, but that America “is a vast unreal intermediate thing intervening between the real thing which was Europe, and the next real thing, which will probably be America, but which isn’t yet, at all.” Wooldridge, pg. 310.

Because today we can hardly grasp this sentiment, where Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne are hardly read (does anyone read Emerson today?) Ives’s music continues to remain outside of the concert hall today.

How Are We to Think of a Museum?

Museums are contested spaces. Never stable either in the physical space a museum occupies or its purpose. Foucault described the  museum as a heterotopia, a space of difference in which the elements of culture are suspended or reversed. At any moment the objects displayed can take on  radically different meanings, where what is thought eternal can be upended and questioned. The same goes for  the building. Any new addition or change, especially a radically architectural one, can bring about a new debate about the role of the museum. A break with ‘tradition’ can call even the museum’s ultimate function in question, especially its role as a space of preservation.

Hegel in his lectures on aesthetics make the point that when the life of art has been diminished in secular society, where art cedes its place to philosopher for contemplating the Absolute, the museum becomes a place not for art’s revitalization but for its mere preservation; where preservation here means that art is largely separate from living culture. It become dead, depoliticized. Taking his lead from Hegel, Adorno would later describe the museum as the “family sepulchers  of works of art.” It is only when art can break out into real life once more can art become relevant again, both politically and socially.

The strong reactions that often accompany discussion about museums is around this very question. What is its role: one of dead preservation, in the sense of Hegel and Adorno, or where Foucault envisions the museum as  place of permanent critique with the past as the museum embodies the critical apparatus of the Enlightenment in order to look back upon itself. (The paradox is that it can only be done within the very Enlightenment values and critical apparatuses it homes to subject to critical examination. Foucault is sensitive to this . . . but that tension to be commented upon at another time)

It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to the Royal Ontario Museum’s move to not only change its logo, but its mission as a museum. This is how Janet Carding, ROM director and CEO described what was happening: “We’re changing our visual identity now to focus on the Museum as an indispensable resource. We’re placing the ROM’s encyclopedic collections, research and curatorial expertise at the heart of the new brand, and showing how, through the ROM, people can connect to their world.”

The logo makes not reference to the structure of the building or its recent Daniel Libeskind addition which provoked many negative reaction is the local press and public. Instead, it is to symbolize “access and dynamism” to the museum’s collections.  If the ROM’s history is any guide, there is nothing to suggest the ROM will not continue to display artifacts in glass cases with many exhibits wrenching the objects out of context and history. As a museum, the ROM feels more like Lefebvre’s notion of the museum as a space of accumulation, a throwback to the 19th century and its rapid industrial and capitalist expansion; a place of connoisseurship or objects and artifacts for a specific elite or class (one is reminded of what Heidegger argued was the problem with artwork being displayed in galleries and not in public where persons can experience art in its “happening of truth.”) The ROM rarely engages a person or provokes them to think, to critically engage them, rather than making them feel they are walking through a collection of curios.