Balthus The Last Studies, at Gagosian‘s uptown gallery through Janaury 18, features more than 100 Polaroids taken by the artist from 1990 to 2000. Most are grouped, or paired, according to subject and formal similarities. With a few exceptions, the photographs present the young model Anna in varying degrees of nudity. We can only guess her age in each image. (I guessed between 12 and 16 and hoped for 18.) These studies — for Balthus paintings of the same subject — are visually intelligent despite containing every cliché of pictorial photography: the muddy palette, the spider webs created by blotches of developing chemicals on the emulsion, the brocaded fabrics.
But no matter how painterly their aesthetic, these images are straight analog photographs, and as such, they describe an actual event. Balthus paintings might be interpreted as his fantasies, but confronted with Polaroids of a young girl with her head reclined and her legs spread, we can’t help imagining the artist, five time her senior, hovering over her with a camera.
This scenario is embellished by the wall label with Anna’s account of the ten years she spent modeling. The text reveals a complex relationship in which the adult Anna describes what she sees as an equal dynamics of power, despite her youth, between her and her portrayer.
We learn that Balthus started using a Polaroid because he couldn’t capably hold a pencil any longer to make preparatory sketches — he was not a photographer and didn’t intend to be one. Nonetheless, his estate decided that the pictures should not only be shown, but also reproduced in a lush two-volume publication (Steidl). One volume contains the complete corpus of Polaroids, the second reproduces select images at blown-up scale, bringing to mind David Hamilton’s 1971 Dreams of a Young Girl, possibly one of the more exploitative photo books published.
This exhibition and publication raise issues of authorship and the artist’s intention also relevant in other recent instances in which photographs and negatives are re-contextualized, enlarged or re-edited after the author’s death: the publication of Francesca Woodman’s Juvenilia, for instance, or the private color slides of Morton Bartlett made into large prints. In the end, Balthus the artist may be absolved, since he had no control over the handling of this material. As for Balthus the man, may we all live to 90 to find out if our response to old age would be undressing and photographing young girls.