Balthus and Wuthering Heights
It is inevitable that an artist who has both denied and invited, doled out and withheld, information about himself should become the subject of endless curiosity. While obsessively controlling his public image through memoirs, interviews, and faithful mouthpieces, Balthus also tried to maintain the aura of mystery that had served him well for over 40 years. He that his work told no stories, revealed nothing about him as a person, and was about nothing at all except the act of painting in a certain place at a certain time. This was in part, perhaps, due to the fact that the work of his younger years, for which he was best known, told a story counter to the one he was busily constructing in his old age, one that seemed steeped in a confusing and, to many, disturbing sexuality. Scholars not among those chosen by him, therefore, looked at these works not only to analyze the works themselves, but to find the answer to the biographical puzzle Balthus placed before them, irresistible as it was. For example, “The Guitar Lesson” of 1934 has served as a key to Balthus himself. Its overtly violent sexuality has therefore been considered as the message that illuminates the tenebrous ambiguity of all of his paintings of adolescent girls.
In this thesis, I argue that this assumption is unnecessarily limiting. If we look at Balthus’s oeuvre instead through another of his early works, his set of illustrations for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights from 1932-35, a very different understanding of Balthus’s depictions of adolescents emerges. Balthus’s illustrations of this work, as well as his writings about it both for publication and in private letters, show that he saw this book in terms of a struggle between the forces of maturity and childhood, the former being truly a fall from the latter rather than a welcome and inevitable change. We will see that the events in the book mirrored Balthus’s own experience of childhood and adolescence, from which he had already reached this same conclusion. Having been a child prodigy, Balthus had formed his artistic identity at an unusually young age— about the age of many of his subjects— and proved to be extremely resistant to changing this idea of himself that he had forged during his very unusual childhood and youth. Indeed Balthus said throughout his life that he remained a perpetual adolescent.
The drawings that Balthus produced for Wuthering Heights proved to be seminal for him as an artist; no fewer than ten of his later best-known canvases draw compositional elements directly from these illustrations. The concepts that he worked out in this project led to artistic forms and connections that continued to be fresh and meaningful for him throughout his career. By examining the forces that formed him as an artist, and looking anew at his other works in the light of these ideas, I show that Balthus’s works depicting young women can be seen as evidence of his identification with, as well as his admiration of, his subjects.
Caty Telfair graduated from Macalester College with a BA in History. Her studies at SAIC focused on European art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Thesis Advisor: Kymberly N. Pinder, Associate Professor and Graduate Director, Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Thesis Reader: Debra Mancoff, Adjunct Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Second Reader: Thomas L. Sloan, Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism