Art, Museums, and Spectators in the Dreams of Thérèse

An old painting raises new questions about presenting historic art to the modern spectator

Hanging on a wall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an oil painting of a thirteen-year-old girl sitting dazed in a plush chair with her legs bent in such a way that her underwear is exposed. She has a youthful wistfulness about her, and the way her head turns away from any onlookers seems to imply that she is unaware of their presence, or perhaps unconcerned in the face of it. She is “unselfconscious,” lost in her thoughts as if she were unobserved—but she is observed; and the empty room she sits in, the cat licking milk by her feet, and the abstract presence of this observer are fused together to create a “natural eroticism” that disagrees with the picture of youth (Hansen).

Thérèse Dreaming stands as a testament to the artist Balthasar “Balthus” Klossowski, yet also as an unceasing reminder of his long contested interest in young women of the 20th century (Klossowski). It is an “interest” that has become a centerpiece for conflict and debate, fighting for a new definition that teeters on the edge between obsessive infatuation and mere inspiration. Balthus’s “interest,” as manifested in Thérèse Dreaming, became the seed of a growing argument amongst museum attendees in 2017 (long after the painting’s birth in 1938) when New York City resident Mia Merrill felt that the controversial depiction of this young girl was unsuited for public display. Offended by the over-sexualization of Thérèse, Merrill began seeking signatories of a petition, which reached 11,598 supporters as of just two months ago (Merrill). Her appeal openly requested the Met’s removal of the work from their permanent gallery, though it included a statement near the end explaining that, at the very least, a single-line disclaimer added to the painting’s contextual plaque would be acceptable. In truth, the social and cultural eminence of the Met would suggest that Merrill never had an honest chance at removing the painting; but her request for a disclaimer is just as potent and may be the reason that the petition has remained relevant.

Merrill hoped that her ardent words of opposition and thousands of supporters echoing those words would influence the Met to warn potential viewers that they might find Thérèse Dreaming “offensive or disturbing, given [the painter’s] artistic infatuation with young girls” (Merrill). She never sought the destruction or unadulterated censorship of Balthus’s piece, she merely hoped that in the future, the Met might “be more conscientious in how they contextualize pieces,” specifically those that may make onlookers uncomfortable (Merrill). And in truth, there is honor behind what Merrill is striving to achieve, even now. It is an honor that is shared by thousands of like-minded individuals with positive intentions; but in spite of these ambitious and positive motivations, the historiographic and artistic words Merrill hopes will be etched onto the plaque of Balthus’s painting bear a much greater weight than she realizes.

“Toward the end of 2017,” says the prominent feminist figure Roxanne Gay, “a dam of silence broke and women and men began coming forward in unprecedented numbers.” They spoke of the assaults, harassments, and intimidations that forced them into silence for years, how they were “otherwise demeaned by powerful creative men” (Gay). Her words are the manifestation of exactly what our current cultural epoch has metamorphosed into over the past months and years: one molded by the #MeToo movement which gained traction in 2017 but was part of the social psyche nearly a decade before Merrill’s petition (Ohlheiser). We are now living in an era defined by the empowerment of women, in particular, and the condemnation of far-too-frequent acts of sexual abuse and assault. In such an era, Merrill’s intentions for the Met are a reflection of this global rise in feminine strength. Her actions are a mirror of our current culture’s attempts to reconcile with previously insensitive reactions to accounts of sexual abuse, assault, and inequity.

As Gay believes, “We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius.” She understands that “[a] great many legacies have been rendered meaningless” as a result of cultural decries against them—as Balthus and many others have come to know—but, to her, no creative genius should be praised at the expense of a victim (Gay). Merrill herself believes that “[given] the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day,” there is neither the room nor the need to showcase an artwork that praises Balthus’s supposed “voyeurism [and] objectification of children” (Merrill).

Of course, it should be understood that Balthus has never been accused of sexually abusing or assaulting anyone, particularly any of his young, female models; and many people have been fighting over whether “his images of children are poignant and sensitive” or not (Hansen). But no matter what conclusions are drawn, the simple act of an older man posing a young girl in a sexualized manner is the primary cause of alarm—and it would be neglectful to say otherwise. With his history of painting girls profoundly younger than he, and painting them to “[map] the unchartable erotic territory that exists between adolescence and adulthood,” it is understandable that Merrill and so many others should feel inclined to protest (McHugh). Whether by removal of the painting or by the addition of a disclaimer, Merrill’s goals are twofold: to promise safety to any fragile viewers who may have encountered some form of sexual abuse, and maybe even protect the dignity of the unspeaking Thérèse as she stands at the whims of an enigmatic artist and thousands of anonymous viewers.

In a series of essays about the visible world, John Berger says, “A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude,” and perhaps this is where some of Merrill’s fears surface (Berger). The tradition of nudity has been a part of the fabric of art for centuries, from before the Renaissance in ancient Greece and Rome to well after with Impressionists and Realists. It is a convention of the historic art world, littering exhibitions with mythical and non-mythical figures wholly exposed to their viewers, and while Thérèse is not in the nude Merrill seems to have projected the current uproar surrounding female objectification in historical art onto Balthus’s piece. “Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is on display,” Berger explains, so it may be that Thérèse’s exposed underwear and sexualized pose display her and her sexuality, underdeveloped childhood sexuality akin to candid nudity. Thérèse, therefore, has been grouped with Ingres’ Odalisque, with Manet’s Olympia, with Titian’s Venus of Urbino—she is, in essence, immortalized as a younger counterpart to these women who are forever sexualized and objectified in the annals of history.

Perhaps, then, Merrill is not fighting to affirm that this painting is a direct representation of sexual abuse or oppressive male dominance—she has long since come to a decision that Balthus’s artwork can be viewed in no other way. Condemning the over-sexualization of Thérèse, then, becomes less germane to Merrill’s argument, and the censoring of Thérèse to protect the painted girl and to protect unwary spectators takes its place. Her requested disclaimer does not classify the painting as one forged by Balthus’s own voyeuristic desire. Rather, it confirms that viewers are justified in feeling disquieted by Thérèse’s image and that any feelings of discomfort are acceptable; and, with a painting that stands in a liminal space between Balthus’s far more disturbing Guitar Lesson and his playful, desexualized The Mediterranean Cat, the validation of uneasy feelings may be just what one needs to gain a deeper engagement with the work (Klossowski).

But is it possible that Merrill’s attempts have the ability to tip the artistic scales from socially conscious and protective, to socially biased? Certainly her motivations are laudable and understandable, driven by a desire to protect people from historically outdated conventions and gendered inequities; however, what if there is something socially harmful deep in the subconscious of these valiant intentions that, too, has the potential to grow—a sort of biased and adverse conditioning of the spectators of Thérèse Dreaming?

Considering for a moment Merrill’s request for a disclaimer, her words have the ability to inform but also the ability to push their own agenda on the unconscious mind of the viewer. It is a socially conscious, ideological agenda that may not be wrong but is deeply partisan. The effects of written information in regards to paintings, particularly on those not commonly in contact with the painted or sculpted art world, are immeasurable, and as one journalist says, “Asking museums to post disclaimers on the wall can drown viewers in information and contextual caveats” (Quito). Eventually, those “contextual caveats” become biblical, originating in the reputable minds of historians and curators. The words are infallible. As hard as one might try, glimpsing a line of text that points out an artist’s own inclination towards sexual provocation of young girls transforms the viewer's perspective of the work almost instantly. It forces them to see the work as impolite or controversial, and it plants a seed in their subconscious to remind them that Thérèse Dreaming is not an innocent painting, that even the painterly skill is to be questioned in light of the distressing imagery.

What is lost, though, goes beyond just the painter’s authenticity and reliability. It permeates the mind of the viewer, it turns them into a purveyor not of their own opinions but of the opinions and ideas written beside the painting. John Berger explains that “[if] we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past,” but Merrill’s textual disclaimer prevents progressive views of the present and forces us not to ask questions of the past, but to simply question a past that she believes should be long gone (Berger).

But the past in art is never long gone. True, art is a product of its own history, but we welcome our ability to intermix it with our present culture; and, it is this very intermixing that gives art its often prescient sensibility. We use works of the present to define the past and works of the past to explain our present: art links both ethereal entities. But when we let a work of art fall victim to one or the other—when we let it settle in the past, present, or anywhere in between—we lose a vital connectivity with the work, and eventually we lose the work itself. In truth, the work of art should be treated “not as an object in this world but as a window into another world” (Goulish). But in the case of Thérèse Dreaming, Merrill’s textual information risks closing the shutters and turning a work created in 1938 into a work solely of the present.

Perhaps it is far too self-important to be so averse to a single line of text beside what many consider to be a sexualized image of a young girl; and perhaps it is insensitive to claim that this over-sexualization does not require a disclaimer for people affected by genuine trauma. But those who seek to alter our perceptions of past misdeeds “believe they will achieve a critical mass, causing an elimination of the despised, and an encouragement of the admired” (Goulish). Simply, a line of text has the power to revise historical truth and to set a precedent, and what may result (albeit far, far down the line) are museums littered with disclaimers, apologies, and biases that will never be contested because they are the reminders of proper social awareness from a bygone era.

But museums are not “safe havens,” as many believe them to be (Bunch). They are hotspots for controversy and many of them pride themselves on that. Met museum director Thomas Campbell says that for museums “it’s all about bringing [spectators] face to face with great works of art, capturing them at that moment of discomfort” (Campbell). To him, museums have a duty to conjure socio-political controversy and dialogue, and others agree. “The arts do not take place in an aesthetic vacuum,” writer Richard Howells says, “[they] are located within society as a whole” (Howells). And, if museums are enclosures for the great works across time and culture, they too are a part of “society as a whole” and the controversies that exist within that society. But the greater public perspective often undermines this truth.

Over time, museums and the art they house have unfairly been the upholders of virtue. Catholic mosaics in Byzantium promoted piety and good faith; mythical statues of Hercules and David were the representations of the military strength in Renaissance cities; and even propaganda posters in the 20th century encouraged frightened citizens to maintain their support of war efforts. For centuries, art has been seen by the public to be in the service of these types of widespread principles: art runs parallel to larger civic morals, and museums run alongside both.

This dogmatic sensibility bestowed upon art institutions has resulted in a public that clings to the idea that museums are and should be the upholders of “highbrow” tenets like morality and virtue. So, when they see art that goes against those tenets, that goes against the “bogus religiosity” (Berger) they picture in their minds, they search for a scapegoat. They blame museums and artists, forgetting that “the arts do not take place in an aesthetic vacuum.” They forget that art is controversy and that museums are not at fault for what they display in their galleries.

The sheer monumentality of ideological institutions like feminism, patriotism, and religion, among others, impose themselves by using an often oversensitive public as their voice—and simultaneously reinforce this oversensitivity with their restrictively revolutionary doctrines. What follows is the collapse of the “virtuous” museum under the weight of public expectations that are too heavy with ideological opinions to support. But in the mind of the public who is gradually losing their trust in museums, this collapse is self-inflicted as these cultural memory-keepers continue to seem excited about “proudly [displaying]” taboo artworks (Merrill). In these pseudo-spiritual places (as per the public’s own determinations) whose paintings line the walls like divine idols, such “taboo” pieces are being worshipped in a flippantly unholy way that is equated to the death of any goodness in museum culture.

While the public loses trust in museums, museums are losing trust in their public; and maybe it is not difficult to understand why. It is easy to rebel against someone when they’ve already rebelled against you, and there is undoubtedly a sturdy, double-sided rebellion at play. The public sees museums as sacrificing civility and social awareness on the altar of beautiful art. All the while, museums see their public as unable to engage in meaningful discourse with the works they consider unfavorable. Artworks run down the middle of this fray like a connective tissue, asking people to choose a side before engaging with them. Disclaimers and apologies for past artistic choices are wont to lead to the corrosion of that connective tissue by way of pervasive ideologies. It means crowding museums not with curious people and complex art relationships but representations of socially and politically biased establishments. Eventually, the three cornerstones of art culture—art, museums, and spectators—begin to drift apart until the connective tissue is forgotten outright. So what then?

This is a dystopian and over-exaggerated future, and one that is far away if not completely out of the question. But that doesn’t mean that our current narrative doesn’t need reimagining. Yes, there is an art, museum, and public symbiosis that exists, but its presence does not invalidate any unevenness within the foundations of that relationship: and that unevenness comes in the many forms of the spectator. Whoever they may be, the onlooker is ultimately the harbinger of emotion and opinion to the still image before them, and the simple knowledge that a viewer will be present is what keeps museums active and their artworks current—even if the controversies that they help to grow have the ability to rip apart the fabric of the art world.

Thérèse Dreaming remains tacked to the walls of the Met for now, but the spectator Mia Merrill has not stopped searching for supporters of her petition—and supporters keep coming. Maybe in a year there will be a disclaimer on the plaque next to young Thérèse, or maybe she will disappear from the walls forever; even so, she will remain the center of a debate steeped in more than just femininity, age, and sexuality. She stands as a testament to the role of the viewer and what happens when thousands of eyes refuse to surrender their hard-fought beliefs.

“The visible world,” Berger believes, “is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.” It is saturated with colored icons and complex symbols, but is a blank slate nonetheless. Each image is on the brink of a transformation, of being reimagined—and this is only able to occur with the help of a spectator whose perspectives and opinions imprint themselves upon the canvas (no matter what those perspectives might be). What results is Thérèse Dreaming, a young girl when seen from afar but up close, a colony of controversy, opinions, ideologies, experiences, and beliefs forming every brushstroke. And holding it together, though often precariously, is the viewer who, in the end, is “the unique centre of the world” (Berger).

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