By Daniel Adler
What if I told you I painted a picture of a 12-year-old girl showing her panties? Pretty perverse, you’d think. Maybe you’d reconsider our friendship, or more likely, reading this blog. But Balthus did just that. How did he get away with it? Better yet, how did he get his weird paintings in museums?
It helps that his father was a prominent art critic, that his brother was a philosopher and theologian and that by age twelve Rainer Maria Rilke was his personal mentor. He went on to know all the important people in Paris during the ’20s and ’30s. When most psychoanalysts were Freudians, Balthus insisted that his paintings depict themes of childhood sexuality, perhaps partly why he was one of the only living artists the Louvre chose to exhibit.
Yesterday at the Met, I was most struck by “Therese Dreaming.” It had been a long while since I’d been downstairs to see the collection of 20th century art; the last time had been before I knew Balthus. This twelve year old reclines pensively, and Balthus paints a little slip of white panty, nothing necessarily degenerate; it’s only a young girl stretching, unconscious that she is showing us, bunch of voyeurs Balthus has created, her underwear. It’s not erotic; it’s quotidian, unsettling because it is so normal and everyday. And the way Balthus discomfits the viewer hints toward a later era — it includes the viewer in a postmodern, almost Duchampian (Étant donnés) way.
And yet there’s something surreal, almost cartoonish about scenes like these. These aren’t the realistic paintings of Courbet with an askance look at childhood–they are entirely new and questionable, curious and ambiguous. Realism reinvented, at a time when figurative painting was disdained. That’s why they’re great.