In his 1989 book on Balthus-the storied and controversial artist who worked in Paris throughout the twentieth century-Guy Davenport gives one of the most nuanced, literary, and compelling readings of the work of this master. Reading it today highlights the change in perspectives on sexuality and nudity in art in the past thirty years.
Written over several years in his notebooks, Davenport's distinct reflections on Balthus's paintings try to explain why his work is so radical, and why it has so often come under scrutiny for its depiction of girls and women. Davenport throws the lens back on the viewer and asks: is it us or Balthus who reads sexuality into these paintings? For Davenport, the answer is clear: Balthus may indeed show us periods in adolescent development that are uncomfortable to view, but the eroticization exists primarily on the part of the viewer.
Arguing that Balthus's figures are erotic only if we make them so, and that their innocence is more present than anything pornographic in them, Davenport posits that the paintings hold up a mirror to our own perversities and force us, difficultly, to confront them. He writes, The nearer an artist works to the erotic politics of his own culture, the more he gets its concerned attention. Gauguin's naked Polynesian girls, brown and remote, escape the scandal of Balthus's, although a Martian observer would not see the distinction. Davenport's critique helps us understand Balthus in our times-something we need more than ever as we crucially confront sexual politics in visual art.
AUTHOR: Guy Davenport (1927-2005) was born in Anderson, South Carolina, and educated at Duke, Harvard, and Merton College, Oxford. He won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Fellow. The author of over thirty books of fiction, essay, poetry, and translations, he was also a visual artist who frequently illustrated his own work. A selection of work from the American original polymath can be found in The Guy Davenport Reader (2013).
Judith Thurman is a widely published literary critic, cultural journalist, and translator of poetry. She is the author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (1982)-which won the 1983 National Book Award for nonfiction, and served as the basis for Sydney Pollack's movie Out of Africa-and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (1999), the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography and the Salon Book Award for biography. She began contributing to The New Yorker in 1987 and became a staff writer in 2000. Her story on Yves Saint Laurent was chosen for The Best American Essays of 2003.