Friday, July 13, 2018

Balthus' THE STREET: A Nymphet Groped Before and After the MoMA

Balthus' The Street: Before (1933) and After (1955) the MoMA

We're reading Weber's Balthus: A Biography in preparation of the second edition of Nymphalis Carmen: Nympholepsy in Nabokov’s Oeuvre

We asked and answered the following question in Nymphalis Carmen:

And who was one of Nabokov's favorite painters? Based on my leading question, you may have been able to guess that it is none other than Balthasar Klossowski de Rola or simply Balthus. Nabokov shared in Strong Opinions

"The aspects of Picasso that I emphatically dislike are the sloppy products of his old age. I also loathe old Matisse. A contemporary artist I do admire very much, though not only because he paints Lolita-like creatures, is Balthus." (167) 

And Balthus shared, translated into English, in the documentary Balthus the Painter (1996), referring to Nabokov: “I think we feel the same thing in the presence of young girls.”

In addition, we've blogged about Balthus in the past. For example, we wrote about how, despite over 8,000 virtual signatures on an (online) petition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused to removed Balthus' Thérèse Dreaming (1938). But I didn't realize that The Street (1933), which I've passed several times at the MoMA, had a previous - even more salacious version. 

Here's MoMA's description of The Street:

The Street, Balthus's first large painting, was one of several that scandalized audiences when it was included in the artist's earliest solo exhibition, in Paris in 1934. Balthus rendered each of the figures in his scene of Paris's rue Bourbon-le-Chateau frozen mid-movement; none of them seem to notice the aggressive sexual struggle underway at the painting's far left [...] The Street was of great interest to Surrealist artists for its rendering of a crowded street as an uncanny site of mental isolation and for its exploration of sexual taboos.

Intriguingly, the art history major who wrote that blurb didn't mention that The Street was modified by Balthus in 1955 at the request of James Thrall Soby. 

Here's a summary of Weber's writing on the history of The Street:

Soby, whose taste in art was "bold enough to confront the formidable", purchased The Street in Paris in 1936 and promptly placed it on a wall in his Farmington, Connecticut home. Soby admitted that The Street hadn't sold in three years due to "[...] the depiction of the young man at the edge of ecstasy reaching over the hem of the girl's hiked-up skirt toward the young girl's genitals."

Soby was "delighted in the shock value" of The Street, he had "a lively sense of humor", "a deep pleasure in upsetting the bourgeoisie" and "[h]e was keyed up by - in his own words - the "young girl being seized by the crotch [...]"

However, Soby didn't anticipate that his five-year-old step-son and his playmates would "[...] titter wildly over The Street." Consequently, Soby placed the painting in a fireproof vault. 

However, in 1955, after Reverend James L. McLane, who ironically hung some of Balthus' "most provocative" paintings of nymphets in his church in Los Angeles, "bawled [him] out for three hours for being so cowardly as to hide a great painting away in a darkened vault", Soby exhibited and bequeathed the painting to the MoMA after it had been modified by Balthus. "[...] the Mongolian boy's hand had been moved very slightly to a less committed position on the young girl's body, though his eyes were tense with the same fever."

The Street has been exhibited in the MoMA at least eight times. Here are three examples:


 "Balthus." December 19, 1956–February 3, 1957

 "Selections from the Collections, Photography, Painting and Sculpture, Architecture and Design"
March 8, 1982–February/March 1983

 "The James Thrall Soby Bequest" March 22, 1979–May 9, 1979