Wednesday, August 13, 2008

When your erotic imagination takes you somewhere you're ashamed to visit

I recently went to see the 100th Anniversary exhibition of the work of Balthus at Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny in Switzerland. I always find that paintings have much more impact when you see the real thing than when you see the catalogue reproduction. This exhibition was beautifully mounted. It was possible to walk through a broad selection of Balthus' work at leisure. Even though the exhibition was very well attended there was time and space to take in the emotional impact of the paintings.

Two things were immediately apparent: Balthus was enormously talented and he was fascinated by images of young girls that convey a deep and passionate eroticism.

Although none of these images show anything as graphic as actual sex, they show clearly the sexual nature of these young (sometimes very young) girls.

It left me startled. I couldn't make up my mind whether I should be outraged, whether I should be ashamed of myself for feeling the power of these paintings or whether I was imagining things as everyone else seemed to be browsing the exhibition as if it was another viewing Monet's Water Lilies.

I think that their power shows them to be art. I feel like a Victorian wanting to add a fig leaf to the Michelangelo's David but I can't get over how disturbing I found the images and how easily those around me accepted them.

I finally realised that what disturbed me about these paintings is that Balthus makes me see little girls the way a child molester does. He does it subtly and with skill and his vision has a certain type of truth to it. The verb that comes to mind to describe this is corruption.

I know, I know, I'm reacting on a purely moral basis here.

I'm sure there are gay artists who could make me see men the way they see them. I would be fascinated but I wouldn't feel corrupted.

What makes Balthus different is that I think that what he sees (and what he makes me see) is not the truth about these girls but a projected fantasy of what he would like them to be.

1 comment:

Remittance Girl said...

I do completely understand your statement about feeling somehow morally corrupted by these paintings. Because I do see the eroticism in them - I can see the little girls through his eyes.

However, I'm not exactly living in fear of suddenly turning into a predator of underage people. My gaze, my thoughts and my actions are not one.

There's a lot of things I lust after that are not socially appropriate. And this brings up the question of where the sin lies - in the wanting or the doing?

What I think has recently crept into our society is a condemnation for the desirer that is almost on par with the perpetrator. In someways it's a very Catholic concept of the sin of thought.

I don't and would never condone the molestation of children. But I really don't feel that society's current temper is doing anything to help individuals carve a deep line between wanting and acting. Putting both the fantasizers and the pedophiles in the same basket, in my mind, simply makes the transition from thought to act easier - because one is condemned regardless, with almost the same ferocity.

This worries me.