Balthus Exhibition Canceled Amid Accusations of Pedophilia

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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.

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