The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has decided not to take down a Balthus painting of a young girl, Thérèse Dreaming (1938), that an online petition calls “sexually suggestive”. The work depicts Balthus’s favoured model and neighbour, Thérèse Blanchard, who was 12 or 13 years old at the time, reclining with her underwear visible. “The artist… had a noted infatuation with pubescent girls, and it can be strongly argued that this painting romanticises the sexualisation of a child,” writes the New York resident Mia Merrill, who started the petition on the website Care2 on 30 November. It has since gathered more than 8,600 supporters.
The petition continues: “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, the Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.”
Merrill says, however, that she is not calling for the work to be “censored, destroyed or never seen again” but either removed from display or shown with a caption that acknowledges the controversy over Balthus’s reputation. She notes that the museum introduced its 2013 temporary show Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations, which included Thérèse Dreaming, with a sign that warned: “Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors”.
The museum’s chief communications officer, Kenneth Weine, told the New York Times that: “Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression.”
This is not the first controversy to engulf Balthus’s images of children in museums. In February 2014, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, cancelled a planned exhibition of the artist’s work that included nude photographs of an underage female model, citing “legal consequences”. The museum’s director, Tobia Bezzola, told The Art Newspaper at the time: “There would not have been any legal problems if we had planned to exhibit drawings or paintings.”