The Guitar Lesson – Balthus 1934
English,  Scandal of the month,  Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Scandal – THAT painting by Balthus…

The Guitar Lesson – Balthus 1934
The Guitar Lesson – Balthus 1934

Well… It’s been a while, hasn’t it… since I last wrote about scandalous art, so I thought I would make my come back with a big bang and investigate one of the most notorious and provocative paintings.

We are now in an age, where we, thankfully, are becoming increasingly aware of consent, trying to stamp out acts against minors and ensuring adequate processes are in place to protect those who are not of an age to make decisions for themselves with clarity.  This said, the processes are not infallible, and this doesn’t protect against cultural differences or just things that happen behind closed doors which go unreported.  Obviously, in the UK we have seen an upturn of previously unreported acts against minors which date back to the 1960s onwards, with companies such as the BBC coming under fire for uncovered sexual assaults against minors.  It is becoming commonplace that where we see celebrities and people in positions of trust, abusing their status and we need to provide the strength to those which is has happened to, to come forward and all their cases to be investigated.

Balthus, was an odd artist.  I can’t say that I am a fan of his work, but there is something intriguing about it, which makes me want to understand it.  It is very easy to look at this painting, dub it as a depiction of paedophilia, and then move on, but there are some elements to it, which are so easily overlooked, that there is a potential that the mere subject of the painting turns the viewer off from its underlying symbolism.

The initial view of this painting, we can see a child being manipulated in place of a guitar, by who we assume is the music teacher.  This is the main focal point of the piece and it dominates the centre of the canvas.  The guitar is cast aside on the floor, and to the right-hand side, just in view is a piano.

This is the most sexually charged painting by Balthus, and little explanation or commentary exists for it, generally because Balthus had no interesting in giving this commentary on his art.  In 1968 he sent a telegram to the Tate, as they were preparing a retrospective of his work which read: –


While it is fine to build a level of intrigue, there comes a point where your audience is going to question your motive for a piece, and this is definitely one of those.

With this in mind, I have put together what I see with regards to this painting, disregarding the critics thoughts and feelings.  I also think it is important to understand how this painting has been displayed in the past, and how it was received, not just by viewers, but also galleries that have come in to contact with it.  The story of where the painting has been is almost as interesting as the painting itself.

The first showing of this piece was in the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1934.  It was placed behind a curtain and only shown to “privileged” visitors.  It was treated like a peep show and was only displayed in this way for 15 days.  In 1938, the painting was purchased by James Thrall Soby, who had intended on displaying this, along with his other owned artwork, but after the museum opted to keep the painting in its vaults rather than on display due to its controversial nature, Soby decided to sell.  What is the point of owning art that no one will see?

Soby exchanged the painting with Chilean artist Roberto Matta Echaurren in 1945.  Echaurren’s wife later left him and married Pierre Matisse (the youngest son of Henri Matisse).  Pierre owned a gallery in New York, where the painting stayed in the vaults until 1977; at which point the painting was displayed for a month.  The painting caused a media sensation, with news papers reporting that the painting was too shocking to show their readers.  After the month, the painting was never displayed again.  The painting was then donated to the Museum of Modern Art, which they accepted and then kept in their vaults.  In 1982, Blanchette Rockefeller saw the painting at a private presentation of works donated to the MoMA by Pierre Matisse.  Blanchette was so appalled by the painting that she demanded that it was given back.

From this point, the painting was sold a few times, finally ending up with Stavros Niarchos, who apparently kept it in an elaborately panelled bedroom.  After his death in 1996 the painting has remained in ownership to the heirs of his estate.

Even though this has only ever been displayed twice, thanks to the wonders of Google, we can however see the work, and I think it still splits audience opinion now, from reactions to shock and outrage to that of a more contemplative nature.

It has been said that this painting has been a direct comparison to the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in the Louvre.

Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avigno, Enguerrand Quarton C1500
Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avigno, Enguerrand Quarton C1500

If you concentrate on the central figures of the Pieta, the girl in “The Guitar Lesson” reflects the composition of Jesus, his ridged body, posed awkwardly across Mary’s lap, an indication of a rite of passage which has been undertaken.  Similarly, the girl is going through her own rite of passage, which is traumatic and untimely.

I have read a few articles, which indicate that initially, Balthus intended the teacher to be him, and hunting around, I found one of the preparatory drawings: –

The potential was that, Balthus realised that this could just be one step beyond for any audience as this really would be a clear indication of paedophilia, and perhaps he felt he was softening the image by replacing his image with a woman’s, although if you look closely, the face is masculine in the finished article – not being able to resist having his influence within this picture.  Balthus is certainly not the only artist that was fascinated with young female models, but he is certainly the only one to portray such blatant sexuality towards one.

The image of the teacher is reminiscent of a painting of his mother; shown in a grey dress, in a portrait that was created by her brother, which was displayed in the same showing as “The Guitar Lesson” in 1934.

The teacher manipulates the girl, like the instrument that has been thrown to the floor, and, this painting may not be so shocking, if the girl didn’t look so distraught by the experience.  Held by her hair and the teacher’s fingers digging into the girl’s inner thigh, like she is about to be “plucked”.  The girl holds on to the collar of the teacher’s dress, pulling it open to display a rounded breast which is visibly excited at what is happening.  The girl’s pre-pubescent body is displayed, her form making it obvious she is not of an age of consent.

The work has been created in muted colours, which makes some of the points within it harder to concentrate on.  The wallpaper in the background is striped, and some have theorised that this is an indication of a cage which the girl is caught in, exposing this as abuse behind closed doors, the girl caught in a trap of the immoral.  Also, the stripes are green, symbolising the freshness of the young girl’s femininity.  Initially the painting looks almost mundane in its technique, but the more you look, the more surreal it becomes, the guitar on the floor, is like a toy – just something to be played with, much like the girl in this scenario, the piano also looks so small, like a toy.  The face of Balthus on a woman’s body, the slippers that the girl is wearing… it all feels oddly placed and almost edging on something dreamlike (or nightmarish).

It has been suggested that the piano is a foresight to abuse of the future.  The guitar only being an instrument that can be strummed, where as the piano is worked by keys and hammers on strings, giving an insight to this not being the final lesson this girl will learn while there are other instruments on the horizon.

No matter how I look at this painting, it is a pained abuse of power and status which leaves me feeling frantic and helpless in the place of the girl.

As we know, art is created to evoke emotions, and this certainly ups the awareness of the horrors of what could be unseen, but personally I think this painting needs to remain in a private collection as it is not something to be enjoyed, but the inner thoughts of an artist whose ultimate reason we shall never know.

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