Balthus’s Girl Photo Exhibit Cancelled in Germany

March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

The painter Balthasar Klossowski, who called himself Balthus, worked with the model Anna Wahli in Switzerland in the 1990s when she was 8 to 16 years of age and he was in his 80s. As he could no longer draw with pencils easily, his chosen method of study in his old age was to take Polaroid photographs of his subject. Decades before this time, Balthus had established a reputation for pushing the limits with his oil paintings, which often featured young girls undressed, in sexually suggestive poses, and/or in sexually charged situations. The Polaroids reveal that he often worked with live models rather than only from his imagination. The use of live nude child models was in fact the typical way the great painters through the ages had drafted their paintings. The photos of Anna included some where she was fully clothed but posing with her legs apart and some from later ages where her breasts were at least partially exposed because her robe was open [note 1].

New York City’s Gagosian Gallery was the first institution in the world to show any of the Polaroids to the general public. Only 155 of the photos, along with one of the unfinished paintings based on the photos, were on display at their exhibition “Balthus: the Last Studies” that ran from September 26, 2013 until January 18, 2014 without any legal intimidation from the American authorities.

Anna gave her permission for the photos showing her to be displayed [note 1]. Yet Balthus, who died in 2001, had never desired to display, publish, or sell the photos.

I saw that Anna’s right areola was partially bared in a photo from this show. Her chest looks flat in it.

Gagosian put some of the photos up for sale at the hefty price tag of $20,000 each. Who would pay such a crazy price? Photos of nude young people by Jock Sturges and Sally Mann are sometimes listed for a few thousand U.S. dollars, but this is way more than that for photos that don’t have the technical brilliance of Sturges’s and Mann’s works.

Some critics, including Der Zeit‘s Hanno Rauterberg, accused the late Balthus of having voyeuristically exploited Anna out of a “pedophilic” motivation to “sexualize” her [note 2]. Some also argued that the photos lack artistic value [note 3]. Do they? The Polaroid camera isn’t exactly well-known for art photography. However, David Hamilton [note 4] and Jacques Bourboulon [note 5] both photographed naked adolescent girls at times using a Polaroid camera, though it wasn’t their usual camera of choice.

The Museum Folkwang, a government-funded institution in Essen, Germany, had been preparing to show all 2,400+ of the Polaroid photos in an exhibit titled “Balthus: the Last Pictures” in April of 2014. Then they got cold feet in the wake of an article in the German newspaper Der Zeit [note 2]. Staff at Der Zeit went a step beyond just reporting on the museum’s plans by contacting the Essen Youth Office [note 6]. The museum staff then consulted with “various interested parties” to figure out if the exhibition would be permissible or not. The deputy chief officer Ulrich Engelen of the Essen Youth Office said, “We are not art experts, but we regularly check artistic works in relation to the protection of minors.” The office concluded that photos of Anna at the age of 8 were “not in the tolerance range”. So, in February 2014, the museum announced that the Balthus photos would not be displayed by them because it “could lead to unwanted legal consequences and a closing of the exhibition”.

As Rauterberg’s noted, analogous situations have recently been confronting art galleries in other countries. “All of a sudden,” he wrote, photographs of naked children in the art world “are considered taboo, even though they bothered hardly anyone for years.” [note 2] An example he gave is the decision of the Tate Gallery in England to remove Graham Ovenden’s naked little girl photos from public display both online and offline after Ovenden was alleged to be a pedophile and convicted of “sexual abuse” by an English court. (Ovenden denies he’s a pedophile or that he ever engaged in sexual activities with children.)

But in the case of Anna’s plentiful photo sessions with Balthus, there isn’t even an allegation that Balthus had sexually touched her. Rauterberg even admitted that nobody forced Anna to pose for Balthus and that her parents agreed that she could. To that he added, “And although she would often prefer to play with her friends, she went to him. There was always candy, and what was more important: There was always undivided admiration.” [note 2]

Steidl Verlag, a book publisher in Göttingen, Germany, was, or is, planning to publish two volumes showing every Polaroid photo of Anna by Balthus.

But at the present time, debate is underway in Germany about whether new limits should be placed on child nudity. A proposed bill would outlaw the commercial sale of nude child images [note 7]. Not only photographs, but sculptures and paintings and more besides, would fall under this prohibition. All of them. The radical idea is an overreaction to the investigation of a German politician in connection with the Azov Films “nudist” video prosecutions.

Update added March 22, 2014:

Steidl went ahead with publication of the book ”Balthus – The Last Studies” on March 15, 2014 and the book launch took place at the Librairie Polonaise in Paris by March 22. The book also includes at least one fully topless black-and-white photo of Anna while her breasts were small and budding and she looked maybe 12.

Notes
1. “Balthus’s Last Muse” by Ingrid Sischy in Vanity Fair, October 2013, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/10/balthus-polaroids-photos-model
2. “Pädophiliedebatte in der Kunst: Die Bilder des Begehrens” by Hanno Rauterberg in Der Zeit, December 15, 2013, http://www.zeit.de/2013/50/fotografie-balthus-paedophilie-debatte/seite-1
3. “The Cultured and the Creepy: Balthus’s Parting Shots” by Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic, October 26, 2013, http://hyperallergic.com/90195/the-cultured-and-the-creepy-balthuss-parting-shots/ (“…he started using a Polaroid camera, badly. The images are fuzzy, repetitive and underexposed.”)
4. “Hamilton: Premiers Nus Polaroid” by David Hamilton in PHOTO, French edition, February 1981
5. “Des clichés un peu à part” by Jacques Bourboulon in Photo Magazine, April 1982
6. “Folkwang sagt Balthus-Schau nach Pädophilie-Verdacht ab” by Christina Wandt in Der Westen, February 4, 2014, http://www.derwesten.de/staedte/essen/folkwang-sagt-balthus-schau-nach-paedophilie-verdacht-ab-id8951121.html
7. “Germany slow to enact EU rule outlawing child porn” in DW.DE, February 28, 2014, http://www.dw.de/germany-slow-to-enact-eu-rule-outlawing-child-porn/a-17463002

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