There is a lot going on in Paris right now that concerns me. For one, anti-Semitism has apparently gotten so bad that on Feb. 17 the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke vehemently to a rather bored-looking congress on the “intolerable rise of anti-Semitism in France.” At first Valls’ passion (and the applause he received every few lines) seemed inspiring, but then it began to seem more like a desperate plea from Valls to his colleagues to behave themselves, to keep it in check, to remember that the French are not a bunch of barbarians. Then there was Adam Gopnik’s essay in The New Yorker about Michel Houellebecq’s very dark new novel that imagines some of the worst possible outcomes for a France on the brink of anti-Muslim slash anti-everything. “Houellebecq is not merely a satirist,” writes Gopnik, but “a sincere satirist.” He is “genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind.”
Know what? Me too. I’m saddened by the madness. And, I have to say, I’m maddened by the sadness (whatever that means). Charlie Hebdo didn’t make me feel any better.
Given all this anxiety and paranoia and terror-alertness connected to Paris, it’s no surprise that I became as engrossed as I did with what I’d like to call the “Balthus Breach in Security.” Allow me to explain. A big bunch of Polaroids (over a thousand) that the artist Balthus never intended to show to the world are now up on the walls of a very fancy gallery in Paris, and printed in a book with a German publisher that has international distribution. And while these rare jewels are being showcased for a few, there is a significant effort being made to keep these pictures out of the hands of the general public.
The Balthus picture-dump is like the Edward Snowden situation, in a way. Someone decided it was in everyone’s best interest to see these photographs (the output of a legendary painter), except for Balthus himself, who has been dead since 2001, and went to his grave without ever declaring these Polaroids or anything made with emulsion and light-sensitive paper to be his art, while those of us who have been lucky enough to see these Polaroids now find ourselves reacting to this new unauthorized addition to the artist’ oeuvre—unsure if we are thrilled to be informed or if we are burdened by this new and incriminating visual evidence.
Balthus was an intensely private individual, known for speaking of himself in the third person: “Balthus,” he would say, “is a painter about whom nothing is known.” People close to him all along the high road of art and culture tended to respect his somewhat contrived, aristocratic enigma. (I think he was even a self-proclaimed Count.) I guess you could say, while his identity was dubious, he was nevertheless left alone to walk his own walk and to be who he wanted to be. For Balthus—an artist so existential and self-excavating—this meant he was given special artistic license to be “unknown,” even to himself.
But what does the man, or any man, have to hide? When it comes to surveillance and intelligence gathering, I keep hearing people in the United States—who seem to want to lay claim to a kind of moral perfectionism—announce with total arrogance: “I have nothing to hide. They can spy on me all they like.” This of course entirely misses the point, for it assumes that “they” are just like “we” and that all of “us” agree on the definition of “nothing.” To some people “nothing” might be “something.” In other words, what one person hides is another person’s exhibition.
A sort of exhibitionist in hiding, Balthus did have something to hide: his Jewish lineage. When it was claimed that his mother came from a long line of cantors, Balthus told his biographer Nicholas Fox Weber that, on the contrary, she was from a Protestant family in the south of France. A close family friend, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, stated that the Spiros family (Balthus’ mother’s maiden name) were descended from “one of the richest Sephardic-Spanish families.” Balthus must have known that there were advantages to keeping his Jewish line a secret. (Gee, I wonder what the disadvantages of being outed as a Jew in Europe could have been during the 1930s and ’40s?)
For most of his life and career, Polish-born Balthus—short for Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (b. 1908)—secluded himself, avoiding the art world and, in a sense, the real world (or the ivory tower art world within the real world). To think of Balthus is inevitably to conjure a mental image (regardless of its accuracy) of a silent old unshaven painter with wispy white hairy eyebrows, in his kimono (a kimono embroidered with his family’s Rola arms) rising to an espresso prepared by his second wife (in her kimono), and situating himself before an unfinished painting leaning up against the wall in his dreamy castle—as if he had all day to roll a cigarette and contemplate the gentle summer breeze. Somehow he gave off this air of royalty and rather significant entitlement. “Balthus.” The name itself is, like, a bit much. No?
After the artist’s death, in 2001, Balthus’ widow Setsuko Klossowska de Rola and daughter Harumi presumably began poking around his studio, when they apparently discovered a treasure trove of Polaroids that exhibited a side to the great master that has always been veiled in his meticulously erotic paintings, but never exhibited outright in such a literal, un-nuanced fashion. After holding the Polaroids for over a decade, they showed them to the kingpin international art dealer Larry Gagosian, who worked with the estate to organize the pictures in groupings, scan them, register and inventory them, frame them up … and this is when the breach occurred. And this is when Balthus turned over in his grave.
There is no mistaking the fact that the Balthus executors knew the market and knew the exact potency of what they had on their hands. Yet, when one encounters one of these contraband images, one gets a unexpected rush, not only from the pictures themselves (which I will get into), but from the gall it took to roll them out.
I had not intended to review these Polaroids. Nor is it their first time being shown. In fact they were the subject of much press last year when Gagosian showed them in New York and then when there was a recent last-minute show cancellation in Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany. I stumbled upon them in Paris last weekend after visiting what I understood to be an important small Balthus exhibition—his first in Paris since a major retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou over three decades ago.
After strolling past a few select paintings and totally sublime drawings (a very early self-portrait drawn with pencil on paper), which were gripping, to say the least, I set my eyes on a long series of Polaroids, and I approached them with innate curiosity. By the time I made it up to the second-floor gallery, which was entirely lined with Polaroids, I understood instantly why the surviving family of Balthus and Larry “Go-go-gone” Gagosian had taken this rather bold liberty—this fairly mischievous step into uncharted territory and unfathomable dividends.
Empathizing with the powerless dead old man, my initial feeling was of disapproval; but I was far too thrilled by what I saw in the small photographs to object. On the contrary, I instantly joined the field of spectators who were quickly engulfing the gallery, like a visual feeding frenzy.
I approached the gallery attendant at her desk (eyeing her black stockings, I confess) to get the scoop and was handed a massive two-volume cloth-bound hardcover book in a gorgeous slipcase. I opened the first volume. All the Polaroids were right there. I realized instantly that the executors had not stopped at Gagosian, but had also taken their loot to Gerhard Steidl, the notorious German who is arguably the most exquisite of all art publishers (especially of photography) in the world, who had in turn enlisted the editorial rigor of Benoît Peverelli and Nicolas Pages, who laid the book out in what appears to be a carefully considered chronology of rhythmic multi-picture chords of imagery on each spread.
As I stopped and looked at the book for, well, ever, I lost track of time. I forgot about the rest of the work hung on the walls of the gallery. I forgot about the paintings and drawings all beautifully framed and miraculously (in a way) right there in the room. (Not an easy task.) Curated by Jean-Olivier Despres, the show puts together a selection of works that tells a convincing story. I could, and probably should mention many great works in the show, but even after a second sweep of the gallery, and a few up-close inspections, I realized that the art was draining my energy while the Polaroids were providing energy. Maybe I was excited by the chance to see something I was not supposed to see. The charge was thus not only about the provocativeness of the candid depictions by an artist struggling with his fading eyesight and fading life, but the naughtiness rather of the people who created such a marvel.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Balthus’ photographs are a very soft-core form of, um, well, “kiddy appreciation.” Right on the line of inappropriateness, they could be called “ultra soft” core, like the toilet paper. They feel perfectly safe, and perfectly friendly, and are not the least bit seedy. But that wasn’t stopping a line of wealthy older men forming behind me to see the book. At one point I had to swing my elbows back to get some space.
Clearly, in art, and in pornography, there are all sorts of attractions and repulsions. The French, I guess you could say, invented the sex fetish. If we go back to the grand poo-bah of fetishists, Mr. Marquis de Sade, we basically acquire a glossary of bizarre, morbid sexual … creativity, for lack of a better word.
In this context of epic transgression, Balthus would be thought of as totally harmless. For he was a master of restraint. I’d like to imagine that his will to obscure was in exact proportion to his compulsion to express. There was a long sustained balance that he achieved, as he quietly, silently made pictures in paint and sketches on paper in a way that kept us consistently alert to a particular erotic drama unfolding in the theater of his imagination.
Consider Balthus’ brother Pierre Klossowski, who was among the French “intelligentsia of perversion.” He was responsible for the 1964 publication of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings, and he wrote volumes about de Sade. Pierre Klossowski—who is also an amazing visual artist famous for his large-scale bondage drawings—also contributed regularly to his good friend Georges Bataille’s review Acéphale throughout the late 1930s. When it comes to the study of transgressive art and literature, I guess you could say, all roads lead back to Bataille. And Bataille is relevant to any study of Balthus, not just because there was a family connection. For Bataille, more than any philosopher of his time, was devoted to scrutinizing and exposing our true nature.
Key to Bataille’s conception of “transgression” is that it is not a mere reflection of an individual’s repressed urges, but more the symptom of a society. Transgressive art was, furthermore, a necessary tool to disrupt society’s far-too-suppressive harmony. In his fiction, Bataille created abject adolescent characters propelled toward craven acts of scandalous, debased sexual experimentation and horrendous crime. If his characters were to have been illustrated in his books, one might imagine Bathus to be the perfect artist for the job. Not so much because of what Balthus shows in his pictures but more the “latency” (a word I will return to later) his characters possess, their potential that is to be overcome, aroused, by wickedness, and fueled by an irrational sexual force.
Like Balthus, (and like the Gagosian Gallery and Steidl publishing house) Bataille recognized the need for security. So much so that he wrote his sadomasochistic novella The Story of the Eye under a pseudonym. Only posthumously was it discovered who the man was behind what had become a underground cult classic. So, one must keep this revolution in mind when reading the 1999 biography on Balthus written by Weber, who was given carte blanche to speak about his subject’s fascination with adolescent sexuality:
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.
Balthus, in other words, was getting in touch with his inner extended puberty. I like to refer to this as the “eternal coming-of-age story,” and we all have the capacity to live this life. But the subtlety with which Balthus examined puberty in certain ways makes Balthus one of the bravest artists to have ever explored this ambiguous and often self-incriminating terrain. Weber addresses, let’s call it, the “problem” in the following passage:
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.
Indeed it is our problem (and an asset to the work), which has now become an even bigger problem looking at the Polaroids. Because the subject is no longer filtered and realized through Balthus’ entire process of painting or “projecting” himself onto the canvas. The other “problem” to which Balthus is referring is our fixation on the immediately apparent seductive and reductive subject of pedophilia and the ease with which we jump to judgmental conclusions, label the artist, stigmatize his output, and ultimately fail to rise to the level of interactive participation that is crucial to the art’s reception. We might become callous to or shy away from the psychology and physicality of his method of exploration and mode of story-telling.
The Steidl book’s press release responds to this preconceived stigma by emphasizing process over product, and steering us to consider Balthus’ late-in-life switch to the Polaroid camera and methodology: “Balthus resorted to the camera as a sort of prosthesis, at once eye, hand and pencil, thus reassuming the mysterious ritual of sketching, for him the one and only way to approach and define the mental image from which the painting’s composition would proceed.”
This Polaroid-ejecting “prosthesis”—this camera (Bataille’s “eye” even resurrected)—was used throughout the 1990s at the “Grand Chalet” in La Rossinière, while working with a specific model in a specific repetitious fashion. There was a day bed, two windows, silky-warm natural light pulsating all afternoon, perfectly shaped green hills out the window off in the distance … and the girl.
“Who is that girl?” I asked the gallery attendant marveling again at her black stockings. “Her name is Anna Wahli. She gave permission for these to be shown. She was even at the opening.” I looked her up on line. And, guess what: She seems to have made it through puberty just swimmingly.
The story has it that between 1990 and 2000, Anna—the youngest daughter of Balthus’ doctor—was recruited to be Balthus’ model. She began the ritual of coming to the chalet to pose when she was merely 8, and the dance continued every Wednesday afternoon until she was 16!
The critic Ingrid Sischy, who reviewed the Polaroids in their debut show at Gagosian’s New York gallery in 2013, describes the scene well: “Anna is dressed in either a tartan or a white dress when she is younger, typically posing in an armchair, but as time goes on she moves to a chaise lounge and wears a brocade robe that sometimes falls open, so she’s partially nude.”
And I would add my own observation that the knee of the back leg is usually up and the front leg is usually bent down—extending off the edge of the daybed into the foreground and out of the frame. Thus the picture is open and inviting, but also cozy and nurturing. With each repeating closeup (often completely out of focus), the artist attempts to lock in and stabilize the figure. The back arm is often thrown up over the model’s head, while the front arm is usually down and relaxed. The geometry formed by the slanted arms and legs is frequently that of the running man symbol or swastika.
One excellent feature of the Steidl book is a short text written by Anna Wahli, and I found a few of her comments to be most insightful about the elderly Balthus:
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.
Notice this idea of the “mental image”—how it correlates to the non-mental, or literal image of the Polaroid. This suggests that while the Polaroids were “images” they were only a step toward a more significant image formed in the mind. They were the tool Balthus used to cement this image in his mind, so that it could then spring from his intuitive inner world onto the canvas, via his paint brush.
It is interesting to note that Balthus also “Polaroided” (sorry, I know) the painting itself on a few occasions, showing its progress in various stages. And this very painting—the “last” painting (Girl With a Mandolin, 2000-2001)—was displayed in the gallery as well, for the world to see, and critique. It was hung on a deep-red wall at Gagosian. The painting is basically unresolved. It never quite adds up to a sum greater than the parts. The parts: a curtain, a cat, a dog, a mandolin, windows, and a girl on a sofa. Though this painting may be a certifiable dud it does however give us a perfect, very enlightening record of an artist’s struggle.
It was this struggle, of course—to return to Anna’s earlier question as to why she had to keep returning—that caused Balthus himself to have to keep returning. In her innocent question, Anna, reveals that she doesn’t yet know what this “struggle” is all about.
From time to time, amidst all the trials and errors, it happens: I recognize what I was looking for. All of a sudden the vision that pre-existed incarnates itself, more or less intuitively and more or less precisely. The dream and the reality are superimposed and made one. —Balthus
This quote is not to be taken lightly; to me it expresses the genuine struggle of making art—what is required, that is, of the artist, in order to know what one is looking for when one sees it. Patience.
Balthus’ art has always seemed a little conservative, behind the times, rear-garde maybe (which becomes the “avant” if we are moving in reverse)—or as the show’s press release asserts, “defiantly aloof from many of the technical innovations of his own time.” Now, due to the Polaroids, we get to leave the artist’s primary medium of painting and drawing behind, maybe for the first time ever. We get to “go it alone” without the marriage of his beloved medium. We get to see what he saw (or didn’t see; ironically). These Polaroids are suddenly activated by our gaze on the muse and the muse’s performance for us—not for Balthus.
Anna remembers Balthus as a bit of a “klutz” with the camera; she says that sometimes she’d have to step in and turn it right side up, which is a perfect expression of the camera’s disembodiment and ambiguity. While this ambiguity is an opportunity, a dislodged eyeball, it is also a misguided, misleading, if not falsely conceived gesture made on behalf of an artist who is no longer able to use his privacy like a shield in battle.
By reacting so strongly and with such pleasure to the Polaroids aren’t I validating them and thus undermining the artist’s intentions to “say it” in paint? And yet, I feel like these Polaroids may be among his greatest achievement, and I am glad that they were put out in the world. Perhaps it is best to see the entire project as a funny sort of tangled up collaboration and a well-deserved retribution. Call it: “A Muse, a Wife, her Daughter and their Dealer.”
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Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, My Vibe, was published by Spoonbill Books.
Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.