The Geometry of Passivity

Balthus: The Street

Controversy precipitated Balthus’ reimagining of the canvas. Apparently, the boy originally had his hand squarely on the girl’s crotch.

Balthus (Baltusz Klossowski de Rola) (French, 1908–2001) 1933.

The Street: Balthus (Baltusz Klossowski de Rola) (French, 1908–2001) 1933.

I always loved looking at this work because it depicts a real place in Paris – rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. The first time I saw the image in a book I had never been to France or studied art history. I was obsessed with the prospect of travel to Paris and indulged in romanticized daydreams of what life might be like there. I recalled that The Street, though not representational, depicted an old world romantic charm that I found compelling. MoMA hauled it out of storage last year and it was on display – but my perspective has changed. No longer reminiscent of a Parisian street with the aroma of freshly baking croissants or the promise of a perfectly brewed espresso, Balthus’ work conveys undercurrents of foreboding.

The use of foreshortening and perspective reminded me of works from the Early Renaissance, particularly Piero della Francesca who was intrigued with mathematics and proportion. The hallmark of Piero’s work was the utilization of geometry to heighten the relationship of human elements as opposed to the purely devotional. Still, religious themes dominate Renaissance art. Balthus appropriates that style in The Street and though the Renaissance was considered an era of cultural rebirth, the technique as it is applied here portends a culture that has regressed. The street in Balthus’ painting exists on a linear plane that creates an illusion of depth – to replicate how the eye actually sees space. The figures however have been depicted in a planar, two-dimensional perspective that is jarring. The juxtaposition is incongruous and it signals that this world may not be as tranquil as it appears at first glance.

Balthus original detail from The Street

Balthus: original detail from The Street

The muted sepia tones of the palette add to a sense of conformity. The figures are rigid. Each character is placed on the canvas as if frozen in the space – assigned to exist in an immobile tableau. The faces display a uniform passivity. In the foreground a young child plays with a stick and ball. Her features are similar to the man in the center who wears a suit. His eyes stare straight ahead and he appears to be in a state of reverie. The child has the face of an adult; there has been no attempt to render her with a more youthful appearance. The young child carried in a woman’s arms in the background also has the face of an adult. Both children’s heads are tilted at the same angle adding to the geometric composition of the image. The priest in the foreground walks with his back turned to the proceedings. His black robes remind one of religious medieval art where the central figure, by virtue of its size in the painting, assumes the most importance. Here, one foot is placed on the pavement as if in the midst of abandoning the proceedings – he has literally turned his back on those around him. In the left corner a boy appears to be restraining a girl. They could be playing but history tells us that audiences were scandalized upon first viewing this in a 1934 exhibition. It was perceived that the young man grabbing the girl from behind in the left corner was engaged in a sexual assault. The action goes entirely unnoticed by other characters in the street and this apparent lack of cognizance – plus the sexual taboo of depicting young children in the midst of rough play – ignited controversy.

Controversy precipitated Balthus’ reimagining of the canvas. Apparently, the boy originally had his hand squarely on the girl’s crotch. Even so, the other characters have no reaction to the gesture and continue with their stroll. Even the boy and girl show no sign of emotion. The baker’s features in the background are so diluted that he looks like a corpse. It’s as though each character is no longer a participant in his or her own life. The stiff rendering of each figure augments their isolation and confinement in a crowded cosmopolitan Paris street; they have become mindless wanderers.

Balthus

Balthus

Balthus, no doubt, was aware of the political events that were transpiring in Europe at that time. One can’t help but think he would have been fully aware of his contemporaries. During the same year that Balthus completed The Street, Surrealist painter Otto Dix’s work was deemed degenerate by the Nazis and subsequently confiscated. The event was a harbinger of more horrific actions. The Street became a prophetic reflection of a passivity that typified Europe – and much of the world.

— Deborah Johnstone, © 2013

The Street
Balthus (Baltusz Klossowski de Rola) (French, 1908–2001) 1933.
Oil on canvas, 6′ 4 3/4″ x 7′ 10 1/2″ (195 x 240 cm)

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