In Riehen, Basel, as part of a Balthus retrospective, Thérèse rêvant is being shown with an expectedly large media echo. And I’m going to take a look at her, because the Diaphanes publishers have suggested launching the “Collisions” section with a text about Balthus. Of all people. I’d rather not—on the one hand. After all, with his questionable preference for adolescent girls, Balthus has already received more than enough attention. Attention that until his death in 2008 he provoked with cool calculation and business sense, but received less in other areas. On the other hand I ask myself whether even in the Thérèse scandal important aspects could have remained underexposed …
For months various media on and offline have been huffing and puffing about the painting, created in 1938, showing the then twelve-year-old Thérèse Blanchard in such a way that the eye is firmly drawn between her legs onto her exposed panties. To be more exact, the scandal is actually raging around the online petition started by Mia Merrill urging the Metropolitan Museum to take the picture down or at least to furnish it with a warning and more extensive contextualization. The petition currently has 11,621 supporters, in recent weeks increasingly from Switzerland.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to discontinue showing the “dreaming” Thérèse in public, and thus avoiding further discussion. But I think even less of the idea of legitimizing her presentation by denigrating feminist objections to a sexualized depiction of young girls as an anti-democratic, anti-art desire for “censorship”—as Hanno Rauterberg does in his current Suhrkamp publication. Rauterberg—whom the Fondation Beyeler invited to appear in the exhibition’s supporting program—draws his sword against the increasing criticism of sexist, racist, and other discriminatory tendencies in art, in defense of a “universal concept of art” that even in purely art-historical terms seems barely tenable. But what is worse is that he comes close to right-wing populist argumentation when he alleges that the signatories to Merrill’s petition are after “censorship,” so as to “fence in the potency of art” and to finish off artistic freedom “in the name of a new prudery.” However, he understands “artistic freedom” as “the old agreement that it [art] is free and unimpeachable and accountable to none.” It’s not a good idea to argue for Balthus with Rauterberg, because questions of visual politics are degraded to dispensable “particular interests” while homage is paid to a universal “independent authority of art,” which is be humbug because precisely in the case of a scandal junkie like Balthus it would be nonsense to suggest that “intrinsic qualities […] bring or brought the artworks into the museum.” I have a different and hopefully better idea. Instead of approaching the dispute around Balthus with the old question of how free is art? which only brings forth generalizations, I would like to look in Balthus’s paintings of young girls for feminist perspectives on what it could mean to be “free down below.”
So I take Margarete Stokowski with me. On the train I leaf through Untenrum Frei [Free Down Below], and read sentences like “Women’s bodies are so much associated with sex that their mere depiction is enough to say ding-dong, screwing this way.” And “A society in which the naked bodies or body parts of women can no longer be separated from sex or eroticism or one’s own sexuality has a problem with its image of woman, and not only with that.” Stokowski’s book is well researched, full of facts based on empirical studies, full of pointed analyses that are both critical of sexism and empowering. It discusses case studies from advertising, YouTube, guidebooks for women, magazines for men, or school textbooks for sex education, and it summarizes: “We can’t be free down below if we aren’t free up above, and vice versa. ‘Down below’ is sex, and ‘up above’ is our understanding of ourselves and others—and both belong together: free down below means freedom in the sexual sense. It means knowing what we like and what we desire, and it means permitting the desire in us—always as far as the freedom of others is respected. Free up above means freedom in the political sense: free from restrictive role models, norms, and myths. / Both freedoms are ultimately only nuances of one and the same freedom, in which we recognize ourselves as subjects and also allow ourselves to become objects whenever we want to—and back again.” … Can Balthus’s Thérèse be imagined as a feminist subject? As a subject that despite being a pictorial object is not passive, powerless, and in need of protection, but active, vigorous, and resistant? Could another narrative animate Balthus’s (online omnipresent) painting, different from the hackneyed old-man Lolita fantasy, which lecherously insinuates that Thérèse wants to be objectified? “Love is not the answer to everything,” Stokowski answers me tellingly with a quotation from Sophie Hunger.
Arriving at the Fondation Beyeler, Rauterberg’s Wie frei ist die Kunst? [How Free Is Art?] jumps out at me in the foyer shop. It lies shining pink in the center of a pile of Balthus picture books and biographies. Oh well, it can only get better. And in fact the tour I join only takes a mildly justifying tone and turns out to be differentiated and open to discussion. The tour guide addresses Merrill’s position and its media echo in her introduction. Almost all the participants have already heard about this, and it is indeed the reason why some of them are here. We follow the guide through the exhibition spaces, while she presents Balthus to us as a smart provocateur and scenographer of complex visual puzzles, whose work shows itself to be equally influenced by the old masters and his long unrequited early love of Antoinette de Watteville. La Toillette de Cathy (1933) translates Balthus’s personal drama into Emily Brontë’s tragic love story Wuthering Heights. The impoverished protagonist of the novel, Heathcliff, sits on the left, with a grim expression and Balthus’s facial features. Slightly turned away from him on the right stands his wealthy beloved, alias Antoinette, in a wide-open dressing gown, naked, light-skinned, thin, with surreally pointed breasts. A greyish maid combs her hair, or rather brutally yanks it around. “It is hard work to get our bodies the way we want them,” writes Stokowski. “If you want to be beautiful, you have to suffer,” says my mother. Cathy alias Antoinette is at any rate extremely annoyed and fed up with this; her expression leaves no doubt. It looks as if it won’t be long before she protests. Balthus, however, never gives her outburst a stage. For decades he paints Antoinette frequently, always giving her a boyishly childish face. When he portrays her in 1944 for Jeunne fille en vert et rouge she is already thirty-two, but in the painting she looks like a twelve-year-old. In its somber coloration, Jeunne fille has the effect of a centuries-old painting whose colors have lost their intensity. Antoinette’s eyes disappear in the gloom, but despite this her gaze seems powerful and resolute. She stands upright behind a table laid with a white cloth, her left hand clenched around a tall candlestick, her right arm bent, her hand about to pull a knife stuck vertically in a loaf of bread. Even though Antoinette wears a red-green jersey instead of a yellow-black one, I have to think of Beatrix Kiddo, the main character in Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003). The film was celebrated in its day as a mighty “feminist statement.” Only back home googling did it become clear to me that the film had been produced by Harvey Weinstein. Under the headline “This Is Why Uma Thurman Is Angry,” the New York Times reports on how Weinstein sexually abused Thurman too, and how she was badly physically and emotionally damaged as the result of Tarantino’s culpability.
In the museum we finally stand before the claret-colored wall on which Thérèse rêvant hangs next to two other paintings also showing Thérèse Blanchard. In Thérèse (1938) she sits in a high armchair with her legs crossed; her gaze —uninterested, thoughtful, sad, contemptuous?—disregards us. Les Enfants Blanchard (1937) shows her kneeling in an absurdly uncomfortable position on the floor, bending over a book; above her in the background her brother half squats on a chair, leaning over a table, his head in his hand. The atmosphere in both paintings is heavy, between boredom and depression. Happy childhoods look different. The guide asks the participants whether anyone shares the view that Thérèse rêvant should no longer be shown. No one who speaks does so. In corroboration the guide says that the young people with whom she has spoken so far all think the same. I find more divided opinions on the feedback cards that visitors can leave on a somewhat hidden side wall. “Always sending sexual provocation from the woman seems extremely crude,” notes one. “I couldn’t find anything offensive,” says another. Yet another writes (in English) “That pedo shit is weird art.” Someone condemns Balthus as “A dandy, an asshole”; one card proclaims “Art is free,” and praises the beautiful colors and the thrilling insight “into a mysterious existence.” Someone is reminded of an eleven-year-old granddaughter: “Now I understand better,” states this person, and then, “but otherwise I don’t like it.” “Very nice that the exhibition leaves space for one’s own opinion—not like the troublesome press,” can be read on one card, and several others feel that that exhibition doesn’t show “any offensive or erotically ambivalent paintings.” The guide, on the other hand, thinks that the pedophile aspect is unquestionably there and can’t be denied. In this she is much more forthright that the wall text in the exhibition space, which sanctimoniously declares that Balthus’s works allow “different kinds of reading, which can range from the empathetic portrayal of childish spontaneity to voyeurism.” But, continues our guide, although both composition and light distribution clearly direct the eye to the twelve-year-old’s exposed panties, it isn’t obvious what there actually is to see. But there is something to see, clearer in the original than in the painting’s many reproductions. We step forward and look closely, right where Balthus makes us look … Blood! Perhaps. At any rate a reddish-brown stain on the panties and slip. No immaculate, unsullied underwear, as so many descriptions claim. To her it was immediately clear, says one participant, “that she has her period and is in terrible pain.” I’m electrified. There it is, my feminist narrative, based on a central detail, right in the middle of an often discussed but rarely closely observed painting, a detail whose brazen directness my art-critic brain would never have dreamed of. All at once it seems quite obvious: Thérèse narrows her eyes, holds her breath, is more cramped and concentrated than obliviously dreaming. Thérèse ayant douleurs menstruelles.
So we stand in a semicircle in front of this painting and talk about the continuing taboo of menstruation, instead of imputing the girl with dreams and desires that would still be more cliché than those of a twelve-year-old eighty years ago. We speak about the systematic disregard of the seriousness of menstrual pain, about the irritation that a passing mention of one’s own period can provoke, about the boundless shame of a bloodstain appearing somewhere despite all precautions. We are a long way from any kind of fetishizing adulation of adolescence. And I remember how for a long time I kept my own menstruation and pain even from my best friend, because I was so ashamed of having become “sexually mature” at the age of eleven. Margarete Stokowski speaks to me from my then heart when she writes: “In the moment I begin to menstruate, the revulsion begins. […] With sanitary pads I have the feeling of wearing a diaper again. I go to school and imagine: Everyone. Can. See. This. Pad. / Add to this the unpredictable cramps, which are so severe that I think I’d rather have all the relevant organs removed than go through this horror for forty years. It feels like a curse. Loss of control, loss of trust, shame. I hate it. And then I don’t feel like growing up any more.”
The fact that Balthus allows us to see a menstruating young girl free down below certainly gives him a new relevance. Thérèse ayant douleurs menstruelles is suitable as a “free-bleeding” icon, the tampon-and-pad-rejecting part of the Period Positive movement, which is currently fighting for shame-free menstruation. Free bleeding isn’t just an aesthetic matter but a political one too. If only for the fact that in Germany, Switzerland, and many other countries sanitary pads and tampons don’t count as “daily requirements” and therefore don’t qualify for reduced sales tax, with the result that higher costs arise to women for their so-called sanitary protection. But free bleeding primarily has to do with reevaluating menstruation, with freeing it from concealment, secrecy, and defamation, with making it perceptible beyond shame—free bleeding is also a political aesthetic in the sense of Rancière. The presentation of this Thérèse isn’t about an oldish artistic freedom but about an emancipatory freedom down below. It is no shortcoming for Thérèse to reveal her bloodstain joylessly, with the painful, often almost unendurable side of fertile female sexuality. If menstrual pain was a normal part of our visual culture and imaginings about girls and women, it would hardly remain a continually neglected desideratum of medical research whose often acute manifestations are still unexplained, let alone treatable.
Thérèse ayant douleurs menstruelles could be a beginning. In the light of free bleeding it interrupts patterns of perception and the traditional idealization of female adolescence, and it reminds us of the unsexy aspects of growing up. In this it could make the world a tiny bit better, for, as Laurie Penny writes in Bitch Doctrine: “Being fifteen is fucked up enough already without having the expectations, moral neuroses and guilty lusts of an entire culture projected on to this perfect empty shell you’re somehow supposed to be.”
is an art historian and cultural theorist. She researches into multi-perspective art-related practices of knowledge, documentary fiction, and political-aesthetic theory and praxis. She writes for various magazines as a freelance art critic.