Balthus Retrospective Condemned by Right-Wing Austrian Political Party

The painter has been accused of pedophilia throughout his career.

Photo: Bank Austria Kunstforum

Austria’s right-wing populist FPÖ party has demanded that officials at Vienna’s Bank Austria Kunstforum provide public warnings on the controversial nature of the institution’s upcoming retrospective of the Polish-French artist Balthus.

The painter—who died in 2001—was repeatedly accused of paedophilia throughout his career. Critics have urged the Viennese institution to distance itself from the sensitive nature of the artist’s erotic paintings.

Balthus often depicted young girls on the cusp of adulthood with their legs apart, bent over tables, or lying on the floor. A series of Polaroids of a young model whom the artist regularly photographed in various states of undress between the ages of eight and 16 has provoked furious responses from critics.

The artist was over 80 years old when he took the photos, albeit in the presence, and with the expressed permission of the girl’s mother.

In February 2014 the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany cancelled a planned exhibition of the artist’s work before it opened: The country’s child protection agency got involved due to the museum’s plans to include Polaroids in the show, which depicted the underage nude model.

“Throughout his work there is an inherent and unpleasant paedophile undertone,” Hans-Jörg Jenewein of the FPÖ told “This is particularly evident in his photographs of an eight-year-old girl. Especially in a time where our society is so sensitive to protecting children, such an exhibition should clearly include an explanatory text.”

Balthus Die Straße I (1929) Photo: Bank Austria Kunstforum

Balthus Die Straße I (1929)
Photo: Bank Austria Kunstforum

On the other hand, supporters of the exhibition have reacted warily to the interference of a populist right-wing political party in the arts—especially given Austria’s role in the censorship and expropriation of art under the Nazis.

Wolfgang Lambrecht, head of corporate communications at Kunstforum defended the exhibition in an email to artnet News.

“We would like to make it very clear that protection of children is an indisputable concern for Bank Austria Kunstforum Vienna. However, we feel that there is definitely no need to protect somebody in connection with the visit to an art exhibition. Protect from what? Art? We [as a society] would have to start including explanatory texts to a lot of exhibitions, museums, indeed, to art itself.”

Balthus Das Patience-Spiel (1943) Photo: Bank Austria Kunstforum

Balthus Das Patience-Spiel (1943)
Photo: Bank Austria Kunstforum

Addressing Jenewein’s comments, Lamprecht added, “It is well known that this party [the FPÖ] occasionally expresses controversial attitudes (also) regarding art in the recent past. Political parties normally do not interfere with art exhibitions, but in view of our presidential elections in April there actually is a political campaign in Austria. We won’t be part of it.”

Several artists throughout art history have had their careers tainted by accusations of paedophilia, including notable artists such as Caravaggio, Gustav Klimt, and Robert Mapplethorpe. In June 2015 however, Balthus’s widow defended her husband’s controversial oeuvre.

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