Balthus: Art or Pedophilia? / by Chris Hall

Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1933

Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1933

Not much was known about Balthus during his lifetime.  He insisted that his paintings should be seen and not read about, and he resisted any attempts from others to build a biographic profile. A telegram sent to the Tate Gallery as it prepared for its 1968 retrospective of his works read: 

NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.

Was Balthus shy, perhaps a recluse?  Did he have something to hide?  Many of his paintings show young girls in suggestive poses.  Balthus insisted that his work was not erotic, but that it merely recognized the discomforting facts of children’s sexuality.  If anyone sees lasciviousness in the work, then it is a reflection of the mind of the viewer.  For my own part I was once attracted to Balthus’work (they are beautifully painted), but this was also tempered with embarrassment and repulsion.  Anyone who can look at Balthus’ work with detachment (as both Balthus and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who housed a retrospective of his work in 2013, would have us do), well, congratulations.  These paintings were not meant to shock.  I sense too much love in them, and that is kind of creepy.  Balthus died in 2001 at the ripe old age of 92.  Bono of U2 sang at his funeral, which was attended by hundreds of people, including the president of France. 

Balthus, The Guitar Lesson, 1934

Balthus, The Guitar Lesson, 1934

Shortly after his death the accusations started to come out.  It is now known that Balthus did in fact have carnal relations with his teenage models, he even took as a mistress Laurence Bataille, daughter of writer George Bataille, step-daughter of famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.  It is said hindsight is 20/20.  We can now see other facts of Balthus' life supporting the pedophilia claim, his first wife, Antoinette, was renown for looking ten years younger for her age, and his second wife, Setsuko, was 34 years his junior.  

In 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a Balthus show, but decided against including some of his more provocative works, such as The Guitar Lesson, 1934.  Meanwhile, in Germany earlier this year, an exhibition of Balthus’ Polaroid photographs was cancelled for fear of a public backlash and legal consequences. 

I often make a point of defending artwork from the sins of the artist, but the circumstances are different here.  Irregardless of Balthus’ intent, his artwork, beautiful as they are . . . in the eyes of the contemporary viewer, they glorify pedophilia . . . and I can not support this.  Balthus let his personal prejudices creep into his art, and we can judge the work for that.  I have to say that Balthus’ crimes, as committed on canvas, trumps any aesthetic pleasure I may have gotten out of it.  Goodbye, Balthus.