The Artist Balthus

According to Swiss radio, if you have a Balthus exhibition, you should be prepared for protests. The Fondation Beyeler in Basel nevertheless dares to do so.

Balthus’ portraits of young girls are controversial because he painted them in erotic poses and not out of fantasy. Anna came to Balthus for eight years to model for him. An artist lives and works with girls who are just about to become women; that is something that can certainly be discussed. Freedom of art permits many things, but how do you present and view works that move at the limits of social rules and norms or even go beyond them? Of course, there is no answer to this question. You can put a work in its historical context, you can focus on artistic achievement or you can question the artist and society. The curator decides what the focus is on in an exhibition; the sovereignty of interpretation remains with the viewer.

How do you get a picture of Balthus’ paintings at the Fondation Beyeler without seeing the exhibition?

I didn’t visit the Balthus exhibition, which can still be seen at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel until 1 January 2019. Instead, as in my studies, an exhibition catalogue is lying in front of me on the table and in my browser you can find some articles about Balthus and the current exhibition in Basel. It is the basis for this text, which does not satisfy me yet. For me, art is more than descriptive words and illustrations. Art must touch you. And that should also be a text about art.

From my point of view, emotionless articles either end up as elitist regulars’ table texts or are a scientific debate. Neither the one nor the other leads me to be enthusiastic about a visit to a museum. When I leaf through the Balthus catalogue, however, I feel like visiting the exhibition and diving into the pictures. Because I don’t just look at art, I try to absorb a work with all my senses.

How do you think, feel or hear a work of art when you can “only” see it?

I want to enjoy art and don’t go to museums to educate myself. It’s important and right that exhibitions are didactically prepared, that an accompanying program is developed and that you consider how to convey works of art. Sometimes I’m interested, but mostly I just want to look at art. Because a good work of art opens a space for me in which I approach the truth. The truth, which nobody can define unambiguously, because enlightenment seems to consist in understanding that the truth is ambiguous.

The more ambiguous, the better

Balthus’ images are ambiguous and his narrative motifs offer space for one’s own thoughts. I wonder what goes on in the minds of the children portrayed, how I would depict myself and what world view can be derived from the street scenes.

The more I try to approach Balthus’ pictures, the more my thoughts become blurred. The images in my head become blurred. I feel the right words to describe individual works, but I cannot write them down. But that’s a good sign, because pictures and words are limited sign systems that can’t depict everything. The truth is between the signs. But not hidden. Quite the opposite. Everyone can see them, but not recognize them correctly.

It is comparable to Balthus’ pictures: For example La Lecon de guitare or Thérèse rêvant. In both pictures, the viewer’s gaze is directed by the composition to the intimate area of the girls. The observer is afraid to follow the composition lines, although Balthus “with few exceptions shows little interest in the depiction of the female pubic region”.

You can see you’re not seeing anything special

Art doesn’t have to be special to be special. Which works are special is not only determined by personal taste. A work is remarkable when it confronts the viewer with something that, for example, he is afraid of or has not yet seen. Something that widens the horizon at a point in time when you can see the horizon and is willing not to fall off the window, but to move on. Walking over the horizon creates an incredible feeling.

Feelings also arise when pictures invite you to dream, when aesthetics inspire the viewer, or when you are enthusiastic about the artist’s technical abilities. Because of such feelings, I go to an exhibition that I don’t want to leave with more knowledge, but with new emotions. Because emotions strengthen one’s own empathy. You put yourself in the work of art and try to understand the work, the artist, the composition and much more.

Whether the Balthus exhibition in Basel is provocative or inspiring is difficult to judge from a distance. Provocation and protest are in any case inspiring if one does not allow oneself to be blindly provoked, but reflects, discusses and uses high-cooking emotions. The Balthus retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel seems to offer good conditions for this.