The Street 1933 Oil on canvas 6′ 4 3/4″ x 7′ 10 1/2″ (195 x 240 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art New York, New York
One of the nice things about making observations of a Balthus work is that no one can really contradict you. The artist simply never explained his paintings to anyone. He felt the picture was there to see, and if you wanted to you could look at it. From time to time he might say, “No, I don’t think that picture is obscene,” but that is about the most anyone could ever get out of him.
Never mind. There is a quality to his work that is peculiar, and I am never quite certain whether I like it or not. His most famous work is The Mountain, but I prefer this one which I think more clearly marked his territory as a singular artist. If you spend a lot of time looking at art, and particularly if you look at schools or styles as a whole, you begin to get pretty judgmental toward some of the great artists. Signac becomes a Seurat wannabe as Braque does to Picasso. This is more than unfair, it is flat wrong, but it is our great American birthright to rank things: “Picasso’s a ten, man, Braque’s an eight at best, and Leger, don’t get me started. I wouldn’t waste a light beer on Leger, dude.” You see what I mean; it’s just goofy.
I still do it, though.
But not with Balthus. He stands alone. His figures are realistic, but heavily stylized, blocky, almost caricatures. His children walk around with grown-up’s heads on them. People crouch in uncomfortable, unlikely positions. (Look at the Mountain. Note the posture of the gentleman on the left. Try that. Comfy? I didn’t think so.) He isn’t really surrealistic, he’s just odd. Nevertheless, I keep coming back to his work, trying to understand why I find it so compelling.
The Street looks like a still from a diabolical video game. Something is up; there is something to be solved, but what? There are nine individuals on this street in a very confined space and not one of them is looking at any other one of them. On the left an Asian man grapples with an Asian woman, or girl. We cannot be sure if this is violence or play, and the others in the painting ignore it. The look on the woman’s face suggests to me that this is, in fact, an act of violence, at least as far as she is concerned. An Asian baker stands nearby as if outside his shop, but the doors look more like the flap-wings of a western saloon. Or perhaps it isn’t a door at all, but a design on the wall. Above, on what looks like the lintel, is a Holmesian magnifying glass, or perhaps it is intended to be a globe.
A child with a racquet leans toward his ball in the road, his posture paralleling the grappling couple. To the right a child in its mother’s arms leans away from the woman in the opposite direction, mirroring the incline of the board carried by the man in white. All other figures stand perfectly straight as if their spines were traced from a plumb bob. All hands are staged and open save for the baker’s and the mother and child. To the left and behind the mother we see the back of a priest who, we presume, stares straight ahead. He stands with one foot on the sidewalk and one in the street, a symbolical acknowledgement, I think, that his business is with both God and man equally. To his left a young man in brown stands as if about to sing. Suddenly, I am reminded of vaudeville. The man with the board has stepped out of a slapstick sketch, and surely the baker is there to fetch pies for the chaotic fight scene. The boy will sing, and the woman will turn to reveal her child with the Fred Astaire head is really just a dummy and she is a master of ventriloquism.
I am nearly convinced, but I keep returning to the wrestling couple, and they do not fit. They are not a part of anything unless I accept that they are there only for the others to ignore. Only the children and the wrestling pair are at all natural. Everyone else has contrived to avoid the unpleasantness around them. They are as false as a bad vaudeville skit. They give themselves the flimsy excuse that they did not see it. People refuse to get involved; they pretend they do not see. Over time they convince themselves that hey, there was nothing they could have done. By making the couple Asian, Balthus opens his accusation, taking it from the personal to the international level. This is what whole peoples do. Ignore the problem and maybe it will go away. Considering what happened in Europe not so many years after this painting was made it is almost prescient. I think the picture is accusative; I think he placed the magnifying glass as a mocking gesture, because too often we refuse to look. He calls us clueless and cowards. I don’t think his opinion of his public is a very good one.
I can’t help but wonder why he never explained his work.