Art should comfort the disturbed,
and disturb the comfortable.
(Cesar A. Cruz)
Until January 31 2016 it is possible to visit the Balthus retrospective in Rome, which is divided in two parts, a most comprehensive exhibit being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and a second part in Villa Medici focusing on the artist’s creative process and giving access to the rooms the painter renovated and lived in during his 16 years as director of the Academy of France.
In many ways Balthus still remains an enigmatic figure, so unswervingly antimodernist to keep the viewer at distance: his gaze, always directed to the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca above all), is matched by a constant and meticulous research on materials, on painting itself before anything else. Closely examined, his canvas shows an immense plastic work on paint, applied in uneven and rugged strokes, but just taking a few steps back this proves to be functional to the creation of that peculiar fine dust always dancing within the light of his compositions, that kind of glow cloaking figures and objects and giving them a magical realist aura.
Even if the exhibit has the merit of retracing the whole spectrum of influences, experimentations and different themes explored by the painter in his long (but not too prolific) career, the paintings he created from the 30s to the 50s are unquestionably the ones that still remain in the collective unconscious. The fact that Balthus is not widely known and exhibited can be ascribed to the artist’s predilection for adolescent subjects, often half-undressed young girls depicted in provocative poses. In Villa Medici are presented some of the infamous polaroids which caused a German exhibit to close last year, with accusations of displaying pedophilic material.
The question of Balthus’ alleged pedophilia — latent or not — is one that could only arise in our days, when the taboo regarding children has grown to unprecedented proportions; and it closely resembles the shadows cast over Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, guilty of taking several photographs of little girls (pictures that Balthus, by the way, adored).
But if some of his paintings cause such an uproar even today, it may be because they bring up something subtly unsettling. Is this eroticism, pornography, or something else?
Trying to find a perfect definition separating eroticism from pornography is an outdated exercise. More interesting is perhaps the distinction made by Angela Carter (a great writer actively involved in the feminist cause) in her essay The Sadeian Woman, namely the contrast between reactionary pornography and “moral” (revolutionary) pornography.
Carter states that pornography, despite being obscene, is largely reactionary: it is devised to comfort and strenghten stereotypes, reducing sexuality to the level of those crude graffiti on the walls of public lavatories. This representation of intercourse inevitably ends up being just an encounter of penises and vaginas, or their analogues/substitutes. What is left out, is the complexity behind every sexual expression, which is actually influenced by economics, society and politics, even if we have a hard time acknowledging it. Being poor, for intance, can limit or deny your chance for a sophisticated eroticism: if you live in a cold climate and cannot afford heating, then you will have to give up on nudity; if you have many children, you will be denied intimacy, and so on. The way we make love is a product of circumstances, social class, culture and several other factors.
Thus, the “moral” pornographer is one who does not back up in the face of complexity, who does not try to reduce it but rather to stress it, even to the detriment of his work’s erotic appeal; in doing so, he distances himself from the pornographic cliché that would want sexual intercourse to be just an abstract encounter of genitals, a shallow and meaningless icon; in giving back to sexuality its real depth, this pornographer creates true literature, true art. This attitude is clearly subversive, in that it calls into question biases and archetypes that our culture — according to Carter — secretely inoculates in our minds (for instance the idea of the Male with an erect sex ready to invade and conquer, the Female still bleeding every month on the account of the primordial castration that turned her genitals passive and “receptive”, etc.).
In this sense, Carter sees in Sade not a simple satyr but a satirist, the pioneer of this pornography aiming to expose the logic and stereoptypes used by power to mollify and dull people’s minds: in the Marquis’ universe, in fact, sex is always an act of abuse, and it is used as a narrative to depict a social horizon just as violent and immoral. Sade’s vision is certainly not tender towards the powerful, who are described as revolting monsters devoted by their own nature to crime, nor towards the weak, who are guilty of not rebelling to their own condition. When confronting his pornographic production with all that came before and after him, particularly erotic novels about young girls’ sexual education, it is clear how much Sade actually used it in a subversive and taunting way.
Pierre Klossowksi, Balthus’ brother, was one of Sade’s greatest commentators, yet we probably should not assign too much relevance to this connection; the painter’s frirendship with Antonin Artaud could be more enlightening.
Beyond their actual collaborations (in 1934 Artaud reviewed Balthus’ first personal exhibit, and the following year the painter designed costumes and sets for the staging of The Cenci), Artaudian theories can guide us in reading more deeply into Balthus’ most controversial works.
Cruelty was for Artaud a destructive and at the same time enlivening force, essential requisite for theater or for any other kind of art: cruelty against the spectator, who should be violently shaken from his certainties, and cruelty against the artist himself, in order to break every mask and to open the dizzying abyss hidden behind them.
Balthus’ Uncanny is not as striking, but it moves along the same lines. He sees in his adolscents, portrayed in bare bourgeois interiors and severe geometric perspectives, a subversive force — a cruel force, because it referes to raw instincts, to that primordial animalism society is always trying to deny.
Prepuberal and puberal age are the moments in which, once we leave the innocence of childhood behind, the conflict between Nature and Culture enters our everyday life. The child for the first time runs into prohibitions that should, in the mind of adults, create a cut from our wild past: his most undignified instincts must be suppressed by the rules of good behavior. And, almost as if they wanted to irritate the spectators, Balthus’ teenagers do anything but sit properly: they read in unbecoming positions, they precariously lean against the armchair with their thighs open, incorrigibly provocative despite their blank faces.
But is this a sexual provocation, or just ironic disobedience? Balthus never grew tired of repeating that malice lies only in the eyes of the beholder. Because adolescents are still pure, even if for a short time, and with their unaffectedness they reveal the adults inhibitions.
This is the subtle and elegant subversive vein of his paintings, the true reason for which they still cause such an uproar: Balthus’ cruelty lies in showing us a golden age, our own purest soul, the one that gets killed each time an adolescent becomes an adult. His aesthetic and poetic admiration is focused on this glimpse of freedom, on that instant in which the lost diamond of youth sparkles.
And if we want at all costs to find a trace of eroticism in his paintings, it will have to be some kind of “revolutionary” eroticism, like we said earlier, as it insinuates under our skin a complexity of emotions, and definitely not reassuring ones. Because with their cheeky ambiguity Balthus’ girls always leave us with the unpleasant feeling that we might be the real perverts.