RETHINKING BALTHUS: TOPSY-TURVY
A painting turned upside down? To what effect? And why?
In the sequestered atmosphere of the university, the bespectacled professor walks calmly to the front of the small crowd. She overturns all expectation—slowly she rotates one of the student's paintings on the wall (a green and white painting by X!!!!) ... she keeps turning the canvas, turning until the painting is 180 degrees from whence it appeared when X hammered the small black nail into the white wall and balanced her artwork at the start of class. Now, the painting hangs topsy-turvy; Professor Y steps back, her pale hands clasped professorially behind her bowed back. "What do you see?" she asks, looking off into space, at no one in particular. Lessons like this are best learned impersonally! This is a studio critique: the painting professor and her students stare at the flipped upside down painting, concentrating attention first on this and then on that area of concern: Is the pattern of dark and light tones coherent? Is there any unwanted focal point that calls too much attention to itself, sucking the composition into a vortex? Do colors recede at a consistent rate throughout the background? Do the negative shapes in between the perimeters offer their own special visual rewards? All such formal analysis seems super-charged, the evidence right there in front of us, as soon as the painting is lifted, swung 180 degrees (I prefer if the turn goes clockwise, but should this matter?), and then placed back on the wall, the composition refreshed by the novel upside down orientation.
Such pyrotechnics are standard operating procedure in Intermediate Painting 301. I know. I attest as a witness. But I ask you now, un-rhetorically: Is turning a painting head over heels a mistake? Does turning break a rule of art? Or is a painting an object, like a sculpture—that can be turned any which way at all, and remain fully, indivisibly, wholly, supremely itself? What right do we have to restrict our perception of the painting to a specific angle of view? Let the painting be free to live in all its multi-valent flexibility! What new content, what undiscovered emotional expression comes to the fore when we turn a painting topsy-turvy?
With this aesthetic independence in mind, consider what happens when we overturn a painting by Balthus. Imagine La Beaux Jours, or, in English, The Golden Days (1944-49), upside down? What happens to that painting? What happens to us, who look at the painting? (Note: Balthus wryly observed that "Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known." Let this essay respect his wish; as in wartime (or warspace) we offer only the equivalent of name, rank, and serial number: Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, 1908—2001, creator of fables of females.)
The Golden Days, upside down
Swiveling Balthus' canvas—now one of the jewels in the permanent collection of Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum—on its head, startling reformulations of the vectors of pictorial dynamism occur. By overturning, the primary motif of the painting's abstract structure becomes the diagonal thrust of a lithe female's torso and straightened right leg that points straight upwards to a dim, dark green expanse (shall we rename this as a ceiling, since now, temporarily, it is above the subject?). This diagonal dominates the painting. The irrefutable bulls-eye of the painting is where the maiden's legs join at a point located along this major axis—a focal point that, paradoxically, is invisible, hidden by the patch of her skirt that currently shields from view her unseen thatch. Currently is the operative term here. The forceful major diagonal of the female body, echoed, and thickened, by the phallic shapes of the small logs waiting to be thrust into the blaze, forms a hypotenuse. She divides (actually Balthus divides, since he is the mastermind of all we see) the overall picture into a pair of right triangles, lying one on top of the other; the diagonal of her body is counterbalanced—held into a dangerous equipoise—by a series of barbell strong horizontals and reed tender verticals. Wow!! By this arrangement of linear elements, the painter creates a grid that threads throughout the canvas. But that grid doesn't exist until we (the viewers of the painting) notice the interlocking elements—consciously or subliminally. Ah, here's the point: we find the structure, see it, in purest form viewing the painting upside down. These straight up and downs (the table legs, the side of the fireplace), and the lines running straight across the painting's width (the bottom of edge of the sofa, the ledge of the fireplace) remain the same visually, and yet, somehow they increase in power, in sensual wattage. We are thunderstruck by the force of form in the upside down version of the painting, mirroring while enriching the visual qualities as they wait to be found, once again, in the right-side-up, original orientation of The Golden Days. Indeed, upside down, the picture (an image of a particular subject) relinquishes its hold on vision, and the pure painting-ness of the painting takes precedence. Why? Because the formal relationships are easier to see in inverse proportion to how easy it is to overlook the subject matter channeled by representation.
Turned on its head, a painting changes. But, strangely, some aspects remain strangely unchanged. For instance, flipped up, the girl's eyes remain uncannily equivalent; their symmetry sustains their appearance throughout—the eyes still look like her eyes (in appearance), and look (in operation) the same from her perspective: like a pair of right side up eyes in an upside down body. See for yourself; the female in The Golden Days directs her desire through her gaze outward, somewhat languidly, the same as before. The whole room has been turned on its head, but the heroine of the plot looks unfazed in terms of her gaze.
Let's examine another painting by Balthus—say, The Street (1933). Looking at it, and into it, we find an enticing Parisian scene (in those bygone days, prior to when pickpockets roamed the City of Lights, preying on tourists...).
The Street, upside down
Nine figures appear at diverse distances from foreground to background. The figures are still as statues: Albert Camus catches the effect of the artist's style, "Balthus...fixes the emotion and the scene with such precision that we are left with the impression of contemplating, as through glass, figures that a kind of enchantment has petrified, not forever, but for the fifth fraction of a second, after which movement will resume—the difference being that the fifth of a second still endures..." The timeless quality Camus describes can be seen in The Street as well as in The Golden Days. In fact, throughout his body of work, Balthus evokes an enchanted quality one reminiscent of paintings by the earlier artists Piero della Francesca and Chardin (no, not Chardin's still lifes, but his paintings that show young people pausing in the midst of a meditative action—a boy balancing a house of cards, a young adolescent girl holding a badminton racket and a birdie that rhymes breathlessly with the curves of her nubile torso...don't get me started on Chardin!!).
As beautiful as Balthus' paintings are, are they predicated on a style and a subject matter that locks his achievement forever in a past that recedes, year by year, into sentimental irrelevancy? Not, I think, if we see them with fresh eyes, and minds, that seek to know his art from multiple perspectives—from his own era, and from ours. The art of painting in contemporary practice expands so that its boundaries overlap with installation art, and with sculpture, video, and performance. Paintings can move. And we, the viewers, can move. Even a stationary image becomes kinetic when the view tilts.
Spinning Balthus' painting of a street scene head over heels, more attention fixes, at first glance, on the shapes and the colors of those shapes arrayed throughout the composition. Perhaps the graceful dispersal of red shapes throughout the painting locks into a small galaxy of like-minded hues, recognized easily when looking at the upended composition. Or a large dark shape appears as purest geometry; only on second thought do we identify this black shape as a female frozen in the midst of a walk. She is a pedestrian on the street in The Street adorned in a long dark skirt and matching jacket; she wears a black hat decorated with a simple scarlet crisscross pattern. She reaches out with one arm in a gesture that, as distance flattens, allows us to consider whether she reaches down to ruffle the skirt of a smaller female pedestrian who marches (although she too has paused) a little way in front of her. The upside down view clarifies formal relationships, by emphasizing the flat pattern of the entire composition. The far wall of the apartment building appears to edge closer to the picture plane.
Contrary to the notion that the interpretation of representation is key to understanding, in a magisterial painting, the process of turning the painting upside down does not cleave composition from theme, but accelerates their turning one into the other, affording more than simply a refreshed orientation of pictorial geometry. The psychological dimensions undergo an equal, if not more dramatic, cleansing. In the case of Balthus' The Golden Days, the girl's head is now something of an afterthought—the real focus of the viewer's mental (psychological, emotional) action is that skirt that now shields (or prevents!) from view the open angle of her thighs. Running our eyes along the legs, we naturally feel ourselves gently pulling up (down?) the skirt...we are there, face to face, as it were, with her secret being beneath the soft fabric. The sexualized, upside down image places us deeper into its narrative recesses. We, collectively (the painting's viewer/s) are the girl's real lover—surely a round of oral foreplay is not out of the picture—we are transformed into an active agent, not a mere voyeur. We plunge into the vortex of erotic subjectivity, while the young man bent over, his back to us (and to the female) remains brooding, (only) playing with the fire. Take heart! The visual plot has taken another turn, fanning the flames, coming by degrees (in terms both radial and combustible) closer to igniting.
Balthus remains the first painter of his paintings. Another essay, subjecting another painter's paintings to the process of turning them topsy turvy, would—we believe—take an entirely different shape (both formal and psychological). Imagine revolving a painting by Frida Kahlo or by one of the fascinating female surrealist painters Leonara Carrington or Dorothea Tanning. Balthus, of course, is renowned for his own particular thematic fixations that skirt close to the edge of a too-lush interest in nubile females. This essay has aimed to add fresh potency to his art. Doing so, we too risk running dangerously close to fetishizing Balthus' subject matter. But his art is monumental in (and a monument to) its obsessiveness. He weaves a spell of utter scopophilia, so that we wear his private compulsion like goggles fitted to our own heads. We viewers, each of us, add fresh meaning, our own perspective and, doing this, we make his art contemporary. Lush with contemporaneity. This essay has not changed one molecule of Balthus' brushstrokes; these words haven't displaced, or amended in the slightest how his imagery is pitched, tight as a tent, upon planes of color. What we have done is reposition examples of his painting with respect to gravity, to space, and to time. We turned a painting; we returned it to its mysterious, never ending infinitude.
"Rethinking Balthus: Topsy Turvy" is the latest in a series of experimental essays in which I (sometimes alone and sometimes with my long-time collaborator Jean Robertson) probe the traditions of painting from a fresh perspective. These examinations focus first and foremost on looking, really really looking, rather than being caught in the network of previous scholarship. IN ADDITION to some serious visual exploration, the essays take shape as an opportunity to forge a playful connection with the reader thru the art of language. So, if successful, each essay is a visual/verbal experience with its own delightful aesthetic properties! Other essays in the series include "Rethinking Bonnard: the Nude at her Toilette" whichappeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, where the essay "Extreme Painting: Eyeballing" is forthcoming in summer 2017. "Painting: Forever Young"will appear in summer 2017 in The Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought.