Balthus' naivete or his mastery

Balthus: Cats and Girls at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the topic of discussion for a recent ArtCritical Panel. David Cohen was joined in an email exchange by six painters (Duncan Hannah, Dennis Kardon, David Carbone, Christina Kee, Nora Griffin) and a poet (Vincent Katz). 
The panelists discuss Balthus' naïveté or his mastery of painting, compare him stylistically to Courbet and Magritte, and dig into the "painting' and 'image' debate. Here's an excerpt from the dialogue, I highly recommend checking out the entire correspondence here.
COHEN  I’ve got to say I always thought Magritte’s technique was intentionally dull – with the bland touch of a sign painter – compared to either the inventive lyricism of Miró or the virtuoso slickness of Dalí.  Balthus is that rarity, it seems to me, an artist who is totally authentic within a self-consciously outmoded painterly idiom.  He doesn’t seem to be intent on juggling several historic styles to make a contemporary one; nor on passing himself off as belonging to a specific past period; nor on playing the kind of stylistic games that were or would soon become current (Picasso, Derain, Picabia).  But intensely as he might be looking at Courbet, Piero et al. he isn’t occupying their respective period looks as if trying to pass himself off as a contemporary of one of them either.

CARBONE  The flat-footedness of Magritte’s realism is an intentional take down of traditional academic painting that has to do with a Dadaist play of signs.  In a somewhat related way, Balthus uses a more complex realism in the 1930s and early 40s to evoke a Biedermeier style of 19th century northern painting that he then subverts with a severe simplicity taken from children’s picture books to which he adds a range of tonalities that evoke a claustrophobic and melancholy air.KARDON  Magritte was only interested in pictorial ambiguity and not painterly ambiguity: he needed to paint only what was necessary to make the meaning for his image, but was not really interested in the painting process. Whereas Balthus was totally concerned with the ambiguities of paint in creating an image. Not only are you staring right up Thérèse’s crotch but – because the surface breaks to reveal the reddish brown under painting – it appears she has just gotten her period. This is missing in the earlier Art Institute painting and goes to my point about the ambiguous meaning from the substance of the paint rather than Magritte’s ambiguity from the image.  And note that this painting has been hung significantly higher here than when it is in the permanent collection, presumably to enhance the crotch point of view. 


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