19 June, 2008

Balthus lessons - five controversial works

In his 1934 gallery debut, Balthus showed five large paintings, ambitious and sexually daring, that might be little known today were it not for the efforts of his resourceful admirers, James Thrall Soby and Pierre Matisse.

The exhibition in fact took place Apr. 13-28, 1934. Galerie Pierre showed, besides two small portraits, the five large paintings that Balthus, working fast, had prepared during the last year.(1) Informing his friend Margrit Bay in Beatenberg in the autumn of 1933, Balthus wrote: "I want to complete a number of paintings for this winter that will be screaming witnesses to my right of existence."(2) The works he produced subverted familiar subjects -- a girl at a window, in front of a mirror, at her toilette or receiving a music lesson -- turning them into scenes of hard-edged eroticism with a strongly sadomasochistic undercurrent.

On Apr. 20, 1934, one week after the exhibition opened, Balthus wrote again to Bay:

This exhibition, much to my surprise in these times so indifferent to intellectual pursuits, has caused a great sensation and produced many discussions. All people of any importance are either shocked, excited, deeply moved or enthusiastic, and, according to general opinion, it is the most important exhibition of the last ten years. So this is now the rise of my star. Of course, I dislike such loud enthusiasm ... ; however, I am pleased that I have been able to move some true and great people.... Thus I have not fought and endured privations in vain. There are some who understand when one has something important to say.... It was a moral victory, because money was not the object.... I had only planned to strike the gong violently in order to somehow shake people up and make them more aware. I think I succeeded.... My financial situation is tragic, and I ask myself if under these circumstances I shall now be able to express all that I have to say."(6
Alice presents two contrasting views of female sexuality. The ambiguity perceived by Artaud is analogous to the Symbolist view of female sexuality as threatening, cruel and dangerous. Alice's alluring posture and her strong sensuality can also be compared to Courbet's painting The Origin of the World (1886). (The Courbet was owned by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whom Balthus knew; Lacan may well have shown it to him.)

The Guitar Lesson is Balthus's most notorious yet least discussed work. No music is being played in the scene depicted, as the tutorial has turned instead into a sexual initiation rite. Most of Balthus's writer and poet friends have passed over the work in silence. Those who have addressed it tend toward the noncommittal. Jouve cared it "a little daring" (1944),(18) while Yves Bonnefoy commented on the work's "amazing stiffness,"(19) and Jean Leymarie described it as Balthus's "only deliberately erotic Work."(20)

The composition is based on a Pieta, probably the Louvre's mid-15th-century Pieta of Villeneuve-les-Avignons, to judge from the near identical height and comparable sizes of the figures. Balthus depicts a female music teacher holding a young girl across her thighs in lieu of the toylike musical instrument abandoned on the floor. The child makes no attempt to struggle. Her body arches in anticipation of pleasure or, perhaps, pain, her posture evoking the rigor mortis of its celebrated prototype on the lap of the Virgin Mary.

Similar themes are of course a mainstay of popular pornography: in book illustrations devoted to sadomasochistic scenes, the stout school mistress who seduces her pliable pupil has long been a favorite, especially in Wilhelminian Germany of the late 19th century.

.... The history of The Guitar Lesson is as interesting as its subject matter. During the two-week exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, The Guitar Lesson hung in the gallery's back room, accessible only to a select few. It remained unsold at the time, and Soby had no competition in buying this work, shortly before the war, from Pierre Colle. To ensure its passage through U.S. customs the painting was covered by another canvas representing a religious subject with angels.

In 1977 Matisse showed The Guitar Lesson in a small retrospective exhibition of Balthus's work at his gallery in New York. The catalogue reproduced the picture for the very first time.(32) Forty-three years had passed since the work had last been seen in public. This image, shocking yet somewhat naive, erotic yet still oddly chaste, had lost little of its impact; the picture attracted a steady stream of gallery visitors.

In 1978 Pierre Matisse donated the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in memory of his late wife Patricia.(33) However, four years later, just before the opening at MOMA of a small installation devoted to the Balthus works owned by the museum, an important trustee happened upon The Guitar Lesson and was so shocked by it that in the end the painting had to be returned.

full article

Balthus lessons - five controversial works by the French artist
Art in America, Sept, 1997 by Sabine Rewald

view The Guitar Lesson


Last year in an interview with Nicholas Glass the British Channel 4 News arts correspondent, Balthus recalled the Paris exhibition in 1934 in which he showed the controversial painting 'The Guitar Lesson'. Paris was shocked by the frankly erotic image of a naked young girl in the lap of her music teacher. According to the artist, he had well anticipated the public reaction.

"I remember I was very poor," he says. "The only way to get out of that state was to make a scandal. It worked well, too well."
(Tuesday April 25, 2000, The Guardian)

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