Balthus: The Last Studies at Gagosian Gallery offers a kind of endnote to Balthus: Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations, the exhibition a couple of blocks away at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a denouement that disentwines the cultured from the creepiness in Balthus’ work, leaving only the latter intact.
The Gagosian show is composed of 155 Polaroids made by Balthus between 1990 and 2000. The majority of them are of his young model, Anna Wahli, who began sitting for him as an eight-year-old and continued every Wednesday afternoon until she was sixteen, by which time she was posing partially nude. Along with the photographs there is one large, messy, unfinished painting.
When Balthus reached his eighties (he died at 92 in 2001), making pencil studies for his paintings became too difficult and so he started using a Polaroid camera, badly. The images are fuzzy, repetitive and underexposed. While the gallery is displaying the photos, which are priced at 20 grand a pop, in related groupings that suggest a serial exploration of each pose, it is more likely that Balthus was taking shot after shot in order to come up with at least one acceptable image.
A text written by the model, Anna Wahli, is on display in the gallery. It reads in part:
It took such a long time to change what seemed to be a minute detail and, from my point of view, all the photographs looked alike. I wondered why I had to return, week after week. On one hand, I did realize that in addition to taking pictures, he also needed to observe me and bask in a contemplative atmosphere so as to be able to fashion a mental image, which he would then strive to render on canvas in his painting studio.
This observation of Balthus, in the final decade of his long life, “bask[ing] in a contemplative atmosphere” with a half-naked teenage girl is key not only to the uncomfortable critical reception to his show at the Met, but to his awkward place in the modernist canon as well. By separating the painting from the imagery, as these Polaroids do, we gain a clearer understanding of the trashiness inherent in the artist’s backward-looking mindset.
I’m writing this as someone who’s had a longstanding interest in Balthus and the way his art grafts a historicist perspective over early 20th-century concerns, such as dream imagery and compressed Cubist space. In his paintings he distances — you could say embalms — his subject’s underage sensuality in geometric formal arrangements emulating Piero della Francesca and, later, Japanese prints.
With a few exceptions, Balthus never expresses himself with the coarse eroticism found in Japanese shunga; rather, the nudity in his pictures — which is always female — is classicized and to a large extent prettified. In this way, Balthus could have his cake and eat it, too — indulging an unseemly appetite through deft applications of cultural pedigree.
On the face of it, it seems absurd to compare Balthus to a painter like Peter Saul, twenty-six years his junior and artistically a universe apart. But Saul’s sexually explicit and ludicrously violent canvases also address urges that society, for its own good, represses; unlike Balthus, however, he takes ownership of their grotesquery. He doesn’t tamp them down and slip them into Piero-inspired sleeves.
That’s where the decadence sets in. Like the corroded aristocracy in a Luchino Visconti movie, Balthus inhabits a world of his own making that ignores the passage of time. The stillness of his canvases is less a sense of calm than a state of denial, pretending that pretty young things still lean out of windows to breathe in the spring air as they did (or as we imagine they did) in 1850. Balthus was drawn to Anna Wahli not because she seemed a typical 1990s eight-year-old, but because he heard her humming Mozart.
The Polaroids in the Gagosian exhibition are doubly disingenuous because they employ contemporary (for 1990) technology in an effort to create the same illusion as his oil paintings. The shots in each photo sequence, with their repeated images, arty poses, exotic costumes and heavy upholstered furniture, carry an air of desperation. The unfinished painting, in which a young female nude dissolves into a flurry of hasty brushstrokes, seems to fragment under the frustration of trying to resuscitate a dead image.
In his 1999 biography of Balthus published by Alfred A. Knopf, Nicholas Fox Weber writes:
Early adolescence is the period of life on which Balthus would dwell forever after. The leitmotif of his art has been children—mostly girls—just at the onset of puberty, full of anticipation and uncertainty. His artistic approach, like his subject matter, would also have the primary characteristics of that time of latency. Emotions are intense without being clear. Like the nubile girls he repeatedly chose to portray, Balthus as a painter appears possessed by overwhelming but dormant yearnings. The ardor is palpable, but its sources disguised, perhaps even to its bearer.
If we put stock in Charles Baudelaire’s proposition from “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) that “genius is nothing more or less than childhood recovered at will” [emphasis Baudelaire’s], then we have a reasonable explanation for the fascination Balthus’s paintings, at their best, can hold for us.
The next part of the quotation, however — “a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated” — provides some insight into why Balthus so often falls into sentimentality and magical thinking. Again from Weber’s biography:
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.
Balthus’s recoiling from a comparison with Vladimir Nabokov’s self-aware monster Humbert is as telling as his dismissal of psychoanalysis, recorded by Weber, as “the curse of modern thought.” As wrapped up in his self-spun enigmas as his paintings are cloaked in counterfeit timelessness, Balthus chose to cling to the intensity of his childhood by fending off any threat of emotional maturity or intellectual scrutiny. His defensive crouch, which, as these photos document, he maintained until the end of his life, is the difference between recovering childhood and being stuck there.
Balthus: The Last Studies continues at Gagosian Gallery (976 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 21.