David Cohen leads a lively email roundtable discussion with Duncan Hannah, Dennis Kardon, David Carbone, Christina Kee, Vincent Katz and Nora Griffin about the exhibition Balthus: Cats and Girls - Paintings and Provocations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on view through January 12, 2014.
Kardon comments: "Magritte was only interested in pictorial ambiguity and not painterly ambiguity: he needed to paint only what was necessary to make the meaning for his image, but was not really interested in the painting process. Whereas Balthus was totally concerned with the ambiguities of paint in creating an image."
Later in the conversation Hannah remarks: "It’s unfortunate that his controversial subject matter is all that most people will see. To me, he was heroic in waving a tattered banner for an alternative route into art history’s future, bucking against the conformity of the prevailing trends. sui generis. Each of his paintings is composed of hundreds of aesthetic decisions, which reveal as much as how he feels about painting, as they do about the content. The roughness of the paint gives me a satisfaction I never get from Magritte, who many have been discussing here. His open-endedness draws me in, whereas Magritte’s way of nailing it all down shuts me out. In that regard, Balthus is generous, allowing the viewer to make visual connections where something is only suggested (see the bench in Thérèse on a Bench). I am always surprised to see how chewy his surfaces are when seeing them in person, since they compress so neatly in reproduction. These are not illustrations. They are the work of an eccentric artist fully immersed in his task."
Kee adds that "it seems a given that the challenging issues raised by Balthus’s work, namely those associated with the desirability and sexuality of early adolescent women, are legitimate as subject matter for painting. . I think, however, I would be among those female viewers (of whom Sabine Rewald is subtly dismissive in her essay) who don’t connect to Balthus for a number of reasons. I don’t mind saying that the attitude towards sexuality it expresses is one of them. My distaste springs from the same point I fear I have belabored – that there is something detached and programmatic in Balthus, and hence something a shade insincere, and – i’ll say it- creepy in his claustrophobic scenarios. These rooms aren’t necessarily nice places for a woman to project herself into as a viewer... Balthus’s near single-mindedness in the choice of his models and subjects is troubling to me. I can’t help but feel that in his consistent choice of schoolgirl models, which I believe lasted pretty much his whole life, there is an implied dismissal of adult women, those perhaps his equal, as worthy subject matter. Balthus is a painter obsessed with a specific, fleeting moment of beauty, and his works are steeped of the anxiety of its passing."