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Transcript, ArtCurious Episode #52: Shock Art: Balthus’s Therese Dreaming (S05E06)

Just a quick note that this episode contains adult content-- so please take care when listening.

In conjuring up the ideas for episodes this season and last, I have, almost entirely, focused on artworks that were controversial in their own time, works that were shocking when they were first exhibited: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a manufactured urinal deemed art; Edouard Manet’s Olympia, an art historical staple updated scandalously for the bourgeoisie of the 19th century; Artemisia Gentileschi’s violent and bloody revenge fantasy, Judith Beheading Holofernes. But with this episode, I wanted to break with tradition, at least a little bit, by talking about one single work of art that was deemed generally fine and was basically overlooked, from any scandalous standpoint, at its birth, and continued to be accepted without debate for decades. But now--right now-- in our contemporary moment, there has been an intense discussion about this work of art, with many calling for its removal. Contemporary art always seems like it is controversial and really good at getting tongues wagging. But art that’s been hanging on the walls of a famed museum for years? That can do a pretty good job of being problematic, too.

Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, by popular demand, we are starting a new season of episodes that continue the theme of our last season. In season five, we will be dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds, covering another painting that causes waves, even today. In this episode, we’re diving headfirst into the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements and throwing some serious sidelong glances at a work by Balthus housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: his Thérèse Dreaming, from 1938.  This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.

Where is the line between art and pornographic imagery? It’s a question that has plagued some for decades-- perhaps even centuries, and it’s hard to figure out. In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously noted that the difference in something that’s obscene and not may be fluid or squishy, but still, it was something he could intuit, perhaps without defining, and with that, he declared, “I know it when I see it.” I love this statement because it’s a bit irreverent, a bit tongue-in-cheek. But what’s hard about it is that it puts that squishy line between art and pornography solely on the individual. What’s problematic for me might not be problematic for you, and vice versa. And this is exactly where we land when dealing with Balthus.

Balthus, born Balthazar Klossowski, had that great benefit of being born of two artistic parents in 1908 in Paris, right when the city was just exploding with creativity. Think back to our last episode of last season of ArtCurious-- this is exactly the time period when Picasso broke the mold with his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. His Polish parents got in deep with the intellectual and artistic communities there, and so little Balthazar was exposed, from the earliest age, to the latest and greatest. But then World War I hit, and Balthus’s parents moved him away, and he ping-ponged between Switzerland and Germany for a decade, before relocating back to Paris in 1924 at the age of 16 to begin his formal artistic training.

There’s something a bit old-fashioned about Balthus’s style. It’s formal, maybe even a bit stodgy in its lines and colors, light and shadows. But his subject matter is an entirely different story. Though he painted the gamut of things-- landscapes, still lifes, what have you-- there seems to be one group of subjects that occurs again and again and it’s hard to ignore.

Balthus painted a lot of dreamy, and dreaming, prepubescent girls. And people, especially now, are having a big problem with this, even though Balthus himself has been dead since 2001. At the center of this argument is one specific painting-- Thérèse Dreaming, painted in Paris in 1938. This work, one of many by Balthus using the same model, depicts an interior scene; a homey space, possibly a living room. Thérèse Blanchard, a neighbor of Balthus, was around the age of thirteen when this particular image of her was painted - however, she was the subject (along with her brother, Hubert) of many of Balthus’s paintings. Here, she is shown in this living space as sitting on a chair, eyes closed, with one leg perched up on the chair in front of her-- that leg perch, by the way, seems to be one of Balthus’s signature moves, as quite a number of his works feature this pose. With her hands resting atop her head, her eyes closed, and skirt unabashedly up, Thérèse is right there, unaware, and revealing her undergarment to the artist - and thus, to everyone who comes in contact with this painting. Alongside the figure of the young, daydreaming girl, is a cat, on the floor, lapping up milk.

Were it not for that perched leg and the revealing hint of white underwear, this would be a pretty standard scene-- maybe even a boring one. But Thérèse’s pose makes all the difference here. And though the work has been part of the Met’s permanent collection for nigh on 20 years and has been shown in exhibitions all around the world both pre-and post-acquisition by the Met, it really wasn’t until very, very recently that this painting became a real problem -- and that’s coming up next, right after this break.

Welcome back to ArtCurious.

In late 2017, two sisters, Mia Merrill and Anna Zuccaro, visited the Met. While making the rounds of the galleries, these women were taken aback by the presence of Thérèse Dreaming displayed prominently therein, and while some might walk by this painting and pay little to no attention, Merrill and Zuccaro were stunned. They saw this painting as an institution taking the side of what they saw as a pedophilic, oversexualized representation of a  young girl. Within days, Merrill created an online petition to remove the painting from the walls of the Met, stating, in part, “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.” Her reference to “the current climate,” is, of course, the one we are currently living in as I record this-- filled with powerful movements such as #MeToo and #Time’sUp, movements that value and elevate the stories of women and men who have been victims of sexual assault by various notable people in a variety of industries--indeed, endemic to society as a whole. These movements have focused on the deplorable actions by people such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Woody Allen, among many, many others. As Merrill continues in her petition, “I am not asking for this painting to be censored, destroyed or never seen again. I am asking The Met to seriously consider the implications of hanging particular pieces of art on their walls, and to be more conscientious in how they contextualize those pieces to the masses...Ultimately, this is a small ask considering how expansive the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection is (they can easily hang up another painting), how overtly sexual the painting is (the Met's description of the piece provides no background on Balthus or his reputation), and the current news headlines highlighting a macro issue about the safety and well-being of women of all ages.”

As Merrill made clear, she wasn’t looking for retribution or for the destruction of Balthus’s offending work-- she simply wanted it either moved, or removed to a less prominent position, or to be given more information or context, or even just going so far as putting up a warning, something along the lines of "some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus' artistic infatuation with young girls." And Merrill didn’t feel like this was an untoward request, and neither did the 11,620+ people who signed her online petition-- just a few hundred short of her goal of 12,000 signatures. Merrill, Zuccaro, and others saw a deeply rooted connection between the current abuse of power and sexuality and Balthus’s infatuation with this young girl that culminated in putting her in a quote-unquote “sexually suggestive” pose.

Merrill’s petition had a lot of supporters. But it naturally had a lot of critics, too. The backlash several parties was extensive. Lauren Elkin, an arts critic and writer, published an opinion piece in the contemporary arts magazine Frieze,  claimed that, “If we only see abuse when we look at the painting, then, somehow, the abusers have won; the men have won; art history is His Story, same as it ever was...Our culture is terrified of sexually-awakened young girls. Our rush to ‘protect’ them is sometimes just a bid to protect ourselves from their monstrous nubile desire. By trying to control the way people look at this young girl, we rob her of an interior life. Female sexuality cannot be forever cloistered and footnoted and appended: sometimes we have to just let it stand (or sit, awkwardly), no matter how troubling.” With the context added to the painting, Elkin claimed audiences would be robbed of their own personal connection they could forge with Thérèse.

Believe it or not, negative attention towards Balthus and Thérèse Dreaming didn’t just arise with Merrill and Zuccaro’s take in 2017, but nearly three decades earlier. In 1988, Kay Larson, a renowned art critic had a few choice words about Balthus and his depiction of this young girl. She claimed that separating style from desire is like separating the man from the artist - it’s  impossible, and ultimately useless in the realm of criticism. She felt that artworks like Thérèse Dreaming are “ an anthropological curiosity to which I claim no connection.” These works, Larson explained, seem to be a vessel to universalize the male experience, with no consideration to women or female-identifying people in general. Male critics, she noted, had a habit of examining this work in terms of style, completely ignoring the underlying tensions and eroticism that are presented by Balthus. This separation, Larson attested, is a radical amputation, and that the binding force in this equation of style and subject is the artist’s desire.

Ten years later, the Met’s Associate Curator of Twentieth Century Art, Sabine Rewald, who is now the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator of Modern Art at the Met, had a different take on Balthus. Rewald, in a sort of confusing defense of Balthus, explained in the 1998 Metropolitan Museum Journal that Thérèse Dreaming was“the epitome of dormant adolescent sexuality,” but explained that Balthus only cared about structure and form, and thus denied any claims of eroticism in his own paintings. This, she concludes later in her analysis, adds to the so-called “ambiguity of these pictures.” Finishing her thoughts, she settles that “the eroticism of Balthus is ambiguous, implied, and not explicit, seductive and not openly inviting.” Rewald also brought to light many literary and artistic “classics” influenced by what she calls “Balthus adolescent.” Nabokov’s infamous Lolita (1955) and Robert Benton’s Still of the Night (1982) are just two examples, while advertisement and media have countless representations of the “Balthus Model” used to sell, attract, and beckon. It would even be easy to believe Balthus had a hand in normalizing adolescent and pre-pubescent sexuality and eroticism. And who knows? Maybe there is some truth to that.

So what is the takeaway from all of this? What was the response from the museum, after all was said and done? Well, ultimately, the Met refused to remove the painting of Thérèse, and the museum’s PR team released a press statement to back up the controversial decision, writing, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s mission is to...collect, study, conserve, and present significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas. Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present, and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression. Presenting difficult and provocative ideas is part of a museum’s purpose.”

So what side are you on? Many feel that one of the many purposes of a museum is to be a safe space to allow for the type of discourse that Merrill started, which is a line that the Met specifically supports. However, it’s obvious that others feel very differently. And besides the question that began our episode today-- about the line between art and obscenity, or art and pornography--there’s another question that comes up with this conversation about Balthus, one that I myself struggle with when looking at Picasso’s works, for example, and most definitely the troubling pieces of Paul Gauguin, to name just two out of a very, very long list. And that question is this: Can we ever truly separate the art from the artist? What many historians agree upon is that, yes, yes, Balthus was at least somewhat perverted and yes, Thérèse was probably in a situation that was inappropriate and even uncomfortable. But does that mean that works of art like this should not be seen? What’s more important, the art or the history?

It’s a tough call. I can say that my own personal opinion is even hard to pin down. As a woman I don’t love Balthus. Never have, and probably never will. As an art historian I don’t really love his works, either, and will probably prefer to study a lot of artists over Balthus, just from my own interest level, though I can totally appreciate his talent and style. But at the same time, I am a museum person. I’ve been a museum person now for more than a decade, and the pressure to back up every complaint or cry from a visitor by keeping a work of art in the shadows is a real thing everywhere. I feel for the folks at the Met. You want to show the works in your collection, period, and give people enough information and context to go upon, but not too much that you deaden someone’s experience by making them feel like they are reading a master’s thesis instead of a wall label, or, even worse, by making a visitor feel like only one reading or interpretation is right. (If you thought that being a museum curator was all rainbows and beauty, think again-- sometimes, it feels like people’s whole emotional lives are in our hands). That’s a lot to bear, and, sadly, it means that someone, at some point, will be upset. It can feel like a no-win situation because art,  ultimately, is about personal preference and expression-- and that’s as true for the viewer as it is for the artist. What’s bothersome to me might be totally fine for you. What’s gorgeous to you might be really ugly to me. So who decides?

There’s an interesting coda to this story. As of the recording of this episode in late 2018, when you search the Met’s website for Thérèse Dreaming, there are three little words that may very well show--or not--the final outcome about this latest iteration of Balthus drama. There it is, for all to see: the words “not on view.”  

Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Valerie Genzano. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo is by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com. Additional editing help by Hannah Roberts.

The ArtCurious Podcast is sponsored primarily by Anchorlight. Anchorlight is a creative space, founded with the intent of fostering artists, designers, and craftspeople at varying stages of their development. Home to artist studios, residency opportunities, and exhibition space Anchorlight encourages mentorship and the cross-pollination of skills among creatives in the Triangle.  please visit anchorlightraleigh.com.

The ArtCurious Podcast is also fiscally sponsored by VAE Raleigh, a 501c3 nonprofit creativity incubator. For more details about our show, including the image mentioned in this episode today, please visit our website: artcuriouspodcast.com. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod.

Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of  art history.

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