The study of art and its history is a sticky, dripping collage of ugly realities and uncomfortable realisations. Paintings are not only material constructions belched out under a certain set of creative conditions, but act as reflections of the societies in which they were created and are viewed. Painted in 1938, Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus has been on exhibition in America ever since. In December, a public petition was started demanding that the painting be removed from the Met, claiming that it ‘romanticised voyeurism and the objectification of children.’ The Met declined to remove the painting ignoring the petition with its 11,000 signatures.
Ultimately, art is an expression of humanity, and sometimes humanity is just so disappointing.
As a woman looking at this painting, I don’t see a sexual object. I see a young girl, in a quiet moment of reverie, not unlike many afternoons from my own childhood. Her underwear happens to be showing. Maybe she is becoming aware of her sexuality (which is not the same as morphing into a purely sexual being), or maybe sitting that way is just comfy. Some of my favourite paintings are by men, and while they were almost certainly painting in the cheery spirit of objectification, I don’t view them in the same voyeuristic way because I am not looking at them with the ‘male gaze’. To assume that the painting is in itself misogynistic, oversimplifies the dialogic nature of viewing. While paintings undeniably were painted with some kind of message in mind, that is only half of the conversation. Even if Balthus was painting a sexualised image of a young girl, the image is still open to interpretation and can be projected upon by the viewer.
If the people who wrote the petition look at this painting and can only see sex, they are just as guilty of the voyeurism they are enthusiastically protesting. The petition claimed that it was responding to the ‘current climate’ created by the Weinstein allegations, and while I don’t doubt that some people would view such petitions as feminist progress, the debate around Thérèse Dreaming encapsulates for me both why and how we should teach art history. The history of people, and of art, is messy and gritty and often makes me want to paint ‘WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN?’ on the side of the National Gallery. If you teach sanitised art history to children, if you leave out paintings like Thérèse Dreaming, you may as well not bother. Because ultimately, art is an expression of humanity, and sometimes humanity is just so disappointing. But looking closely at our follies, at the way they made us feel, at how we have or haven’t changed, is surely one of the most important areas of study.
If Thérèse Dreaming is an example of anything, it is evidence that the very misogyny that the petitioners were protesting is still alive and well, because the ‘male gaze’ is assumed to be the universal one. If you go to the National Gallery and all you feel is anger at how there aren’t that many paintings by poor people, or black people, or women, then I think that’s fantastic. Because our art, our galleries, are microcosms of what our society values. Galleries feel like churches for a reason. I don’t think that encouraging children to examine what it is that they are worshipping and internalising can ever be a bad thing, for them, or for us.