Skip to Main Content

A Balthus Notebook

Part of ekphrasis
Contributions by Judith Thurman and Lucas Zwirner

In his 1989 book on Balthus—the storied and controversial artist who worked in Paris throughout the twentieth century—Guy Davenport gives one of the most nuanced, literary, and compelling readings of the work of this master. Reading it today highlights the change in perspectives on sexuality and nudity in art in the past thirty years.

Written over several years in his notebooks, Davenport’s distinct reflections on Balthus’s paintings try to explain why his work is so radical, and why it has so often come under scrutiny for its depiction of girls and women. Davenport throws the lens back on the viewer and asks: is it us or Balthus who reads sexuality into these paintings? For Davenport, the answer is clear: Balthus may indeed show us periods in adolescent development that are uncomfortable to view, but the eroticization exists primarily on the part of the viewer.

Arguing that Balthus’s figures are erotic only if we make them so, and that their innocence is more present than anything pornographic in them, Davenport posits that the paintings hold up a mirror to our own perversities and force us, difficultly, to confront them. He writes, “The nearer an artist works to the erotic politics of his own culture, the more he gets its concerned attention. Gauguin’s naked Polynesian girls, brown and remote, escape the scandal of Balthus’s, although a Martian observer would not see the distinction.” Davenport’s critique helps us understand Balthus in our times—something we need more than ever as we crucially confront sexual politics in visual art.

"What [Davenport] does with knowledge and information is what any great artist does with his or her medium: communicate a feeling first and then a whole world of thoughts, a nexus of possible realities embedded in our own... There is magic in this kind of meaning making, the kind that treats everything as significant and so elevates it."

– Lucas Zwirner, The Paris Review

Davenport produced "works both deeply edifying and unclassifiable... Many who sought out his work considered him one of the greatest prose stylists of his generation."

– Eric Allen Been, Harvard Magazine

"Davenport — essayist, scholar, fiction writer, translator — was a force. He seems to have read everything and retained it all."

– Michael Robbins, The Chicago Tribune

Davenport is one of "the great literary polymaths of the second half of the last century."

– Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

More books in this series: ekphrasis