Exhibitions Controversies News Germany

German museum cancels Balthus show after critics cry paedophilia

Exhibition planned for April at the Museum Folkwang in Essen would have included 2,000 Polaroids taken by the artist when he was in his 80s

An exhibition on Balthus was held in Cologne at the Museum Ludwig in 2007. Photo: dpa

The Museum Folkwang in Essen has cancelled a planned exhibition of Polaroids by the French-Polish artist Balthus featuring a model called Anna who posed for him from the age of eight to 16. The museum announced yesterday, 5 February, that it decided not to stage the show because it “could lead to unwanted legal consequences and the closure of the exhibition”.

“Balthus: the Last Pictures” was due to open in April and include 2,000 Polaroids taken by the artist when he was more than 80 years old. He used some of them as preparatory works for his paintings.

In December, the German newspaper Die Zeit criticised the planned exhibition at the Essen museum, calling the images “documents of paedophile greed”.

Following “preliminary discussions initiated by the museum’s management with various interested parties”, the museum said in a statement, it decided that staging the exhibition in Essen “could lead to unwanted legal consequences”. The statement adds: “Such a development based on the existing legal situation would not be in the artistic interest of the project, and would contradict the mandate and the responsibility of the Museum Folkwang. Therefore, the museum’s management has decided not to proceed with the exhibition.”

Gagosian Gallery, New York, which represents Balthus’s estate, showed 155 of the Polaroids (they were priced at $20,000 each, according to Die Zeit) in the exhibition “Balthus: the Last Studies” (26 September 2013-18 January). In Vanity Fair’s preview of the Gagosian show, Ingrid Sischy wrote: “These images are raw, and true, and risk being fodder for the censors who seem to rear their heads whenever children appear nude in art photographs, even when there is absolutely nothing dodgy going on.” The show coincided with a major Balthus survey at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, “Balthus: Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations”, which closed on 12 January.

The images had not been seen before the Gagosian exhibition. It was the first time Balthus’s widow, his daughter and Anna had given their permission.

Steidl is due to publish a limited edition two-volume book of the entire body of Balthus’s Polaroids.

Balthus with his model Anna, aged 11 years old. Photo: © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
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3 Mar 14
16:48 CET


Art can depict 'war (Goya), cruelty (Howson), dead people and dead children (joel peter witkin) - it seems that the only thing that is too shocking and disturbing for art, and our minds, to contemplate are children's naked bodies. Take a step back, consider what is happening and ask yourselves - are we in the grip of some form of insanity? How can a child's body have become the 21st century's grossest form of obscenity? Why shouldn't child-sexuality be something accessible to art, philosophy, science, sociology and politics? Surely nothing should be off-limits to the processes of civilisation - especially something as common place and ubiquitous as children's bodies - after all, we all had one once. Those who want to remove Balthus from the galleries have much in common with those who support FGM - the total eradication of all traces and possibility of child sexuality.

17 Feb 14
21:38 CET


I perused Balthus' work in question. They are quite sexual. Can nude images which are highly sexually charged not be pornographic? Yes. I believe so. Art attempts to give us something uncommon in experience from that something that is taken into the bathroom behind a locked door. After all, who takes a painting into a bathroom. Polaroids are different. Easy to pocket and sneak off to the bathroom with. However, Balthus meant for these particular Polaroids of Anna as art studies. I honestly cannot say that is or is not a dirty old pedophile. It is not what my mind sees when looking at these works.

11 Feb 14
15:19 CET


The art of Balthus and other artists like him SHOULD be censored. Celebrating youth's sexuality? Really Gerard Hundman? I hope you're being sarcastic. That's just sick. Anybody that wants to look at this stuff should be monitored by a government agency.

8 Feb 14
17:19 CET


Pretty sick that people would pay $2k a piece for pics of a nude model. Get your intellectual/ educated head and hearts examined...

7 Feb 14
16:41 CET


The Nazi's are back.

7 Feb 14
16:31 CET


It seems that modern times inquisition (internalized into a rigid form of self censorship) decides what art these days is supposed to be. The art of Balthus and many artists like him, who celebrate the beauty of youths sexuality, has nothing to do with child exploitation. It saddens me that museums shy away from doing their initial job which is to present us with all forms of art and start a discourse.

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