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Two works by Balthus 1908-2001

By Association co-founder Paul Woods

Thérèse rêvant or Thérèse Dreaming, painted in 1938. 150.5 x 130.2 cm, Oil on Canvas

Thérèse rêvant or Thérèse Dreaming, painted in 1938. 150.5 x 130.2 cm, Oil on CanvasPolish/French artist Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, thankfully shortened too and better known as Balthus, was born on February 29 1908 in Paris. Balthus is a painter of some of the most erotic images created, images that have subtle, ambiguous and powerful sexual tensions. Images of pubescent girls abound in the work of Balthus but the sexual exploration these images force are more of a mirror to our own thoughts, revulsion and desires rather than that of Balthus himself. He died in Switzerland in 2001.

The composition at first looks simple and unsubtle but this is deceptive; the composition quickly leads one to a rollercoaster exploration of intense erotic complexities that are both deliciously exciting and disturbingly exposing of deeper darker thoughts. The very simplicity of the painting allows this as a multitude of stories of desires and fears can be conjured up by the imaginative viewer.

The painting depicts a young girl (Balthus worked with many young models creating some of the most erotic images ever painted, images that have subtle, ambiguous and powerful sexual tensions), the girl is alone in a simple room (perhaps a drawing room or bedroom) the room is decorated with vertical stripped wallpaper. A few sparse props are arranged set-like in the picture composition, a wooden chair and table, a container and two glass vases are upon the table, a crumpled white sheet hangs rather stiffly from the table top. In the foreground there is a white cat lapping cream or milk from a white saucer.

This is a sensual image of a young girl at the fulcrum point between adolescence and early adulthood. The young girl reclines on a long chair. She is in an upright position supported by a blue pillow. She is wearing a white, short sleeved shirt respectfully buttoned, modest to being prim and proper. In contrast her red skirt with white lining or underskirt has slipped to reveal her bare legs and white panties. She is wearing delicate red shoes. Her legs are parted, one leg rests on the floor and the other has knee raised with foot resting on the chair seat. She is viewed from an oblique angle as sunlight bathes her full frontal from the left of the painting. Her arms are spread wide with her hands interlocked and placed upon her head. Her face is seen in profile turned to her right, the viewers left. Her dark hair is styled and neat, her eyes are closed. She is not asleep; she is day-dreaming, deep in thought or vacuously enjoying the sunlight warmth.

This is the simple structure and arrangements of elements and colours that form the basis of a deeply psychological and highly charged erotic work of art the equal of the very best artists and achieved by so few.

Tensions are created within this painting that help to emphasize the sexual focal point. The sunlit girl is surrounded by muted colours while in contrast strong purer colours of red and white excitedly dance and interweave bouncing off each other as the eye crisscrosses the crotch of the panties. To add to the tensions in this composition to this composition a red vase pulls the eye across the painting threatening to shift the focus away but the main focus is too strong.

Almost everything in this painting is devised to relentlessly draw ones focus to the panty covered genital area of this young resting day dreaming girl. The pubic crease of the white panties glimpsed indirectly through open legs is the intensely erotic focal point of this painting. As we look at this painting the pubic area is at the crux of the A frame shaped by the raised right leg. Follow the line from the left knee along the thigh. Follow the line of the left red shoe and direction of the chair seat. Step from the left shoe to the right shoe and the girl’s panties automatically follow. The main intensity of light falls at this point. The red of the skirt loops around and encircles the erotic focus. An imaginary line linking the saucer of milk, upraised knee and left elbow passes straight up the panty crease. Excitedly or uncomfortably ones eye is forcibly drawn to this single point.

The lozenge shape of the girl’s upraised arms creates a secondary focal point. The arms encompass the girls face seen in profile making us see the girl as a person, a young attractive person with her own thoughts and desires. The shape of the arms is echoed by the shape the red skirt creates and inexorably draws up back to the main focus.

But, it is once there that the deeper psychological and ambiguous sense of eroticism fade in and out to cause disturbing thoughts and questioning not only of the paintings erotic intentions but ones own personal questioning and responses to the concepts of sex and sexuality dredged up by this intelligent piece of erotica.

Are we looking at a caught moment, a sensual image of a girl in the early stages of becoming a woman, a girl innocent of her sexuality, innocent of her sexual charm and power, alone with her cat completely relaxed in her solitude enjoying the freedom of being alone and liberated? Is she sure of her seclusion enough to not be concerned her skirt has risen up, her head full of innocent thoughts?

The white cat lapping a saucer of milk is enigmatic and maybe a symbol indicating purity and innocents.

Or perhaps she is aware of her changing sexuality? Perhaps she is aware that her young body can be desired by others and enjoyed sexually by herself? She may be reveling in her blossoming bodily and mental changes dreaming of her first instances of love and sexual enjoyment aware of her exposed body heightening her sexual moment. She is alone and we as a viewer of the painting are not involved with the subject of the painting.

If we were to stand as an active and integral part of the subject matter of this painting, have we just stumbled upon this private moment? Will we turn away and immediately leave shocked and appalled or do we leave in a state of pleased embarrassment? Perhaps we feel a pleasure in this unexpected encounter are we excited by the open legs and exposed panties of a young woman, have we just become a voyeur stealing a peak at a forbidden moment tense with excitement? Are we happy to turn away before our presence is discovered or do we have an urge to take the situation further? How much further do our desires push for us to go?

Perhaps the situation is different; perhaps we have covertly manipulated the situation entering the room with knowing or expectation of an erotic view or even a physical sexual encounter? This manipulated situation could be because we hope or know our intentions will be willingly reciprocated or perhaps we don’t care?

Or have we been manipulated? Perhaps the girl is not unaware of our presence and she is knowingly displaying herself teasing, tempting, daring or even wanting us to take the next step on a sexual journey.

The very simplicity of this painting means we can engage with this image and embark on a multitude of stories or fantasies and sexual feelings. Some of this mental journeys may excite us some may appall us and some may even take us to the deeper darker recesses of our imaginations. Perhaps we will learn something about ourselves. Perhaps we will like it, perhaps we will not.

Balthus is a wonderful artist of the erotic and many of his paintings will engage us in this way.

Girl with Cat, Jeune fille au chat - 1937, 88 x 78 cm, Oil on Canvas

Girl with Cat, Jeune fille au chat - 1937, 88 x 78 cm, Oil on Canvas I have included this painting too as it is superficially comparable to the one previously. The girls pose is very similar but her arms are placed supporting her head from behind and she is seen full faced. Her eyes are open and engage directly with the viewer. The background paintwork is freer and more physically agitated the bolder colour scheme gives added punch to the painting. The white cat of purity and innocence is replaced by the rather large tabby that looks more like a guardian, a protector, an obstacle to be overcome.

We are engaged with the subject in this painting, we are a part of the subject and no longer seeing an innocent moment of solitude. We are complicit in the story. We are firmly engaged with the girl.

This is a girl who is fully aware of her surroundings and the situation with her raised skirt. She is young but confident knowing full well the affect and power of her provocative and challenging sexual posture. Here whole stance is physically and mentally one of “I know you are looking. I want you to feast your eyes on my sexuality and I dare you act; I want you to act”. She has power and control; she has become your sexual equal or even your superior. One may be excited and emboldened by her obvious willingness or one may be afraid of her power and control. This painting does elicit a different but limited set of responses to that of Thérèse rêvant

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