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Screenshot of December 2013 article in the German newspaper Die Zeit denouncing Balthus’ Polaroids as pedophilic (via Die Zeit)

In response to a public outcry, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, has canceled an exhibition of Polaroid photographs taken by the French-Polish artist Balthus, The Art Newspaper reported. The cancellation was spurred by public insinuations in Germany that the work is pedophilic; a December article in the major newspaper Die Zeit called the images, which depict a model named Anna from ages eight to 16, “documents of pedophile greed.” A show of the same Polaroids at the Gagosian Gallery closed January 18 after a one-month extension, and an exhibition of the artist’s paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed earlier that month. The Balthus Polaroids were set to open at the Museum Folkwang in April.

These attacks are hardly unusual for Balthus, who, over the course of his career, deflected comparisons between himself and Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert. In his review of the Gagosian show, Thomas Micchelli of Hyperallergic Weekend quoted Nicholas Fox Weber’s 1999 biography on this subject:

That critics have alluded to Lolita in reference to his work, and portrayed him as a sort of Humbert Humbert, struck him as “stupid” and “grotesque.” The use of his 1937 Girl with a Cat on the widely distributed Penguin paperback of Lolita was anathema to him. Balthus maintained there is not a hint of lasciviousness in this portrait he made of a girl Lolita’s age—in which the viewer is at eye level with the child’s crotch, which is also the painter’s vantage point. If we see sexuality in this rendition of a pensive child, it is our problem.

The Art Newspaper also noted that the German imprint Steidl is set to comprehensively publish the Polaroids in a forthcoming volume. The famed press, based in the university town of Göttingen, has among its most recent titles Edward Burtynsky’s Water; over the course of four decades it has published the likes of Jim Dine, Robert Frank, Roni Horn, and Ed Ruscha. The listing for the book, priced at 480 Euros (~$580), remains active on the imprint’s website. Though Steidl could not be immediately reached for comment, it seems unlikely that the title is imperiled. All mention of the Balthus show has been scrubbed from the Museum Folkwang’s exhibitions page.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story used this press photograph from Gagosian; it has been taken down at the request of the gallery’s representatives.

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

9 replies on “Balthus Exhibition Canceled Amid Accusations of Pedophilia”

  1. I never knew that Balthus took no responsibility for the erotically-charged nature of his work. To claim that it’s “our problem” is absolutely ridiculous. He was clearly trying to steer clear of any legal consequences for his work.

    It’s easier to mask some of the moral implications of his process when they’re his paintings. I quite enjoyed his recent show at the Met. However, to release polaroids he took of a girl as young as 8 it reveals a much darker process at work.

    Balthus is a hero to a lot of painters / artists. I think it’s possible to respect the work he’s done, but we need to be careful of worship. In the privacy of his studio he could have been the sort of monster that we’d never want to imagine.

    1. I saw the polaroids at Gagosian and found them beautiful, but surely strange. The lengthy account of his model Anna Wahli, used as wall text, doesn’t present him at all like a monster. It’s quite endearing what she wrote. Leaving the show I asked myself what if all those works were done by a woman? Seems like she would be allowed appreciate what Balthus apparently isn’t permitted to.

      1. They may well be beautiful. My reply has nothing to do with the aesthetic qualities of Balthus’ work. Like Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, talent can excuse controversy.

        The problem with a minor’s perspective is that they are not an adult who can give permission for such activities. Would any child who agreed to be photographed nude take the responsibility off the adult taking the photo? It doesn’t make sense.

        I fail to see what gender has to do with this, either. That seems to be making excuses; as if men should be given more room to take nude, perhaps erotic, photos of children.

        1. “The problem with a minor’s perspective is that they are not an adult who can give permission for such activities.”

          I think the “permission” argument needs to be on the heels of successfully demonstrating that these works are inherently exploitive. I haven’t seen that case made.

          If they are not exploitive, a parent or legal guardian gives consent, which is exactly what happened here. If nude photos of minors are inherently exploitive, we have a lot of parents to prosecute, including my own.

          1. I don’t know if a parents consent is the real issue. People can consent to their children being in child porn and that doesn’t make it right. I’m just pointing out that parental consent is not straightforward.

      2. “I asked myself what if all those works were done by a woman?”
        I hear ya. Sally Mann, for instance.

        These photo studies push more buttons because they depict a real girl. We feel creeped out seeing her directly from Balthus’ POV and I think that does say a lot about what was going on there in his studio: a tension line is being walked and we find ourselves uncomfortable walking it. That speaks well of us, I think.

        These sorts of image will always be controversial but, I can’t help but think it’s sad when censorship attempts to wipe away a long ongoing dialogue.

  2. Dude’s a perv, for sure. One per-pubescent girl in a short skirt with her panties showing would raise eyebrows, but an entire career devoted to them seals the deal. Who knows, maybe Balthus kept his obvious delight in the emerging sexuality of tween girls confined to just looking and not violating. One can only hope. Still, they are quite lovely.

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