“Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) by the painter known as Balthus. Credit Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998

This past Monday the New York Times ran an article, “Met Defends Suggestive Painting of Girl After Petition Calls for Its Removal“. It was in regards to “Térèse Dreaming” by Balthus (pictured left). I read the article. I read the opinions of a number of people about why removing the painting was so important. I realize I have a lot to say…

The rush to hide this piece of art, which makes viewers (especially notable within our current social struggles) uncomfortable, also serves to tidy away deeper more personal reactions to the #MeToo topics of today: what do we do with the male gaze?. It’s obvious, almost mandatory, to feel uncomfortable viewing Balthus’s work, however I also feel that the exact discomfort Balthus inspires is the discomfort we must struggle to make peace with concerning our own behaviors.

*I will note that I have not seen the Met’s exhibit, so I cannot comment on it or its overall impact. I am primarily interested in responding to the specific artwork selected for censorship, “Thérèse Dreaming”.

Personally, I identify with this painting. Let me count the ways. A girl who seems young and comfortable in her skin (who I have been), who is not “pretty” in a made-up manner, who is tomboyish perhaps, and is calmly and comfortably reclining in a chair, eyes closed, resting. Her skirt has fallen open, her foot is resting on a bench. She is covered fully in her daily garb, wearing underwear and a slip beneath her skirt, her top fully covers her chest, and nothing about her attire nor her physical arrangement is revealing or flirtatious in a purposeful or overtly challenging manner. One believes, looking at her, that she is tired and finding a moment for comfort and rest. She is not concerned, nor seemingly aware, about what we can see of her. She is resting, comfortable, and evidently safe in her room with her cat eating peacefully beside her.

This painting is protested for “sexualizing a young girl”.

Yet she herself is not sexualized, nor is she sexualizing herself.

We are uncomfortable because we can see her underwear.

Ok, let’s take it a bit deeper. The painter presents us with additional symbology which is challenging, creating discomfort for the viewer, almost chiding us along. The girl’s companion, the cat, is licking milk from a saucer directly below her open red skirt and parted thighs. The shape of the skirt itself is not unlike the rosy draping of labia around this girl’s naked legs. One could go so far as to argue that her own bent leg, sticking out from the middle of her open red labial skirt seems almost phallic. The bottom hem of her skirt, glimpsed below the opening between her legs is a pool of red suggesting menstruation. This girl is not a girl. Balthus lets us know this girl is capable of a woman’s use. The cat and saucer invariably invites us to think of pussy, of lapping the milk of womanhood from between this sleeping — no, “dreaming” — girl/woman’s white slip and underwear region. Her arms, in a strange position for restful sleep, are folded behind her head, elbows out, reminiscent of the shape a woman makes when she accepts the gifts of pleasure from her sexual partner below. We are being asked to dream alongside Thérèse. This painting is innocent. This painting is fantasy.

What makes me angry is not that I am led to think unclean thoughts about a girl who is underage, it is that protesters refer to her “being sexualized” rather than taking responsibility themselves for thinking sexual thoughts — just as they have been led to. Clearly what is painted is a young adolescent girl who happens, as all adolescent girls do, to have a body. She is resting comfortably, not engaged with her budding sexual self. People criticizing this painting should consider their own psychologies first. Art which makes us wrestle and ask ourselves what we’re thinking and why we’re thinking such things is the most important art there is. Does this girl who is not activating her own sexuality deserve to be covered up forevermore because of our adult sexual awareness (and even uncomfortable enjoyment) of her, or should she be let to sleep?

This is a modern problem. Absolutely. Still.

Isn’t an unwillingness to let her sleep and take responsibility for our sexualization of her underline the very meaning of rape culture?

When will we fucking let girls sleep?!

I hear echos of “but her dress was so tight”, “but she drank so much at the party”, “but she flirted with me”, swimming around her slumber. Are we uncomfortable because this is a painting and we have a three dimensional vs. two dimensional reality problem which abjectly stops us from raping her, exerting dominance over her ease, or destroying her innocent rest? If we cannot rape her, must we censor her instead? Either way the girl disappears.

If the painter was a woman would we be protesting her artwork as loudly?

If this same painting was of a boy the same age, fallen asleep in nothing but his underwear, would we have a single remarkable thing to say? It would not be sexualized. It would simply be a portrait of a moment, perhaps even romanticized by these same protesters as a yearning for the simplicity and comfort of youth. That we are unable to view a girl with her leg on a table with that same distance I find mountingly disturbing…

We are suspect, and that we are suspect is entirely the point contained within this work to begin with. This theme is echoed by Bathus throughout his career in works which push buttons much less holistically than this.

Even when I was a child I knew when someone was wrongfully sexualizing me (though I didn’t understand the concept of sexualization at the time). I loved being naked and I saw nothing wrong with my naked body, and nothing wrong with being naked around others. I grew to understand at too early an age that adults were not comfortable with my nakedness. What I LOVE about the painting is the very juxtaposition of the fact that she is not ruffled or affected by our adult discomfort in her pose. It is clearly the responsibility of the adult to remain, fantasy perturbed (or not), silent, and undisturbing of her dreams. This painting is an invitation to decide exactly how we choose to act as adults, and how we choose to interject — or not — our adult awarenesses on those undeserving.

I squarely hold it on the elders in my life that a disservice to and disruption of my developing humanity and personal agency has been repeatedly enacted upon me in undermining ways throughout my life. I wish many men and other adult people had taken the time to stand before this painting, uncomfortable, to decide what the right thing to do is before fucking with and by degree destroying my childish understandings of my own not-desiring-of-sex-yet reality.

I am a person who has lived the experience of owning a young female body, and I’ve spent much time paying for and suffering through people’s attitudes and oppressions concerning my natural form. Get your gaze off of my physical comfort. My emerging sexuality is not for you to shape for me. And, in truth, I have an emerging sexuality still at the age of almost 40 because I’ve had people interfere with my natural development since the age of 4… CAN WE PLEASE DEAL WITH THIS CONVERSATION AND NOT KEEP HIDING IT AWAY?!?!!!

If art does not help teach us to accept what is natural and struggle with our own internal “what to do’s” about the situations we find ourselves in or the thoughts we have, how do we grow as individuals? How do we become better actors? How do we face paranoia and prove to be better than our thoughts, fantasies, and fears? We are fed inappropriate information geared toward commodification of our bodies since birth. That I had to put a shirt on as a 7 year old was inappropriate. No adult should have been uncomfortable with my body at that age. Unless there is a history of this painter actually accosting or abusing his models, he is a man who is voicing the unspeakable: everyday impulses we do not discuss as a society. Because we do not openly discuss these issues the concepts contained within them are used as weapons of oppression and threats, dominating the undeserving. Yes, art asks you and I to travel through the tunnels of our own psychology and come up with answers to these “what ifs”. Was Balthus an abuser, or was he an explorer of uncomfortable subject matter? I, personally, am empowered by some of his work and grateful for these questions to be asked as loudly as this painting suggests.

Was this artist a letch? I come from an artist-filled family and have done my fair share of modeling for varied assortments of artists. In an article linked to above there was mention of letters from one of his younger models who modeled for a number of years. In it she writes nothing ever happened at their sessions other than posing and photography… So are we to just decide that he was being inappropriate even though this model has said nothing of the sort? This is a twisted paranoia which measures what’s appropriate not by the people involved in the work but by modern standards formed by the patriarchal male gaze which makes suspect and sexualizes all female bodies. Of course I notice this girl’s underwear in the painting, but then what do I do with that? If I decide this image is dirty, then I must contend with my own feelings that there is something inherently dirty about girls who allow their underwear to be seen, even in unconsciousness and sleep (victim blaming anyone?).

I do not have children. I was asked if I would allow my ward to model for Balthus knowing his work. I would make that decision differently if I were only a viewer of his art than if I knew him personally. I would probably be present for the modeling. I would be regularly asking my kid if they felt comfortable working with the artist and let them know that if they didn’t feel like doing it there was no expectation continue… Again, I think the conversations he brings up are persistently important ones. He was, notably, of a different era with different standards and ideas about modeling. Naked bodies of whatever age were not automatically associated with pornorgraphy or sexualization. Artists are in the business of prompting conversations and making statements about society’s views through fresh and different perspectives.

If we take the image literally, then yes, let’s have a blunt conversation about cunnilingus with a minor, but that’s not what Art is for. Art is about communicating something beyond the obvious and triggering our subconscious synaptic pathways, bringing together our reactions, feelings, musings, thoughts, beliefs, questions, decision making centers, and ultimately actions into a place of new discovery and balance. Art brings forth conversation about topics that we would not have if it were not for their complexities disguised as “frivolous” evocation. Unless there is a conversation about how this work was created which involved actual abuse of a minor, one must look at it for what it is asking of the viewer, and not mistake its meaning for the obvious reaction one has to a shocking image of suggested indecency. We are the indecent ones in this conversation. We have been painted into that role by the artist. How do we redeem ourselves? Certainly not by censoring each image or the reality of a pubescent girl’s body existent in space, but by letting sleeping girls dream. Undisturbed.

Play On My Friends,
~ Creature

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