For many, it is the most important work of Balthus: Passage du Commerce- Saint-André. I must confess that it is rare and beneficial that the common sense in this case corresponds entirely to my own feelings. The 1952/53 painting is really a masterpiece. I even think that Balthus can be called the Wes Anderson of painting, especially because of this painting – even if he creates less symmetrical compositions and uses completely different, but equally typical colors. While Wes Anderson makes films that are primarily based on images, Balthus makes images that are as scenic as in other films.
The picture Passage du Commerce- Saint-André is at the center of a Balthus retrospective currently taking place at the Fondation Beyeler. The painting has been on permanent loan from Claude Hersaint’s collection in the Basel Museum for several years. It comprises eight people whose paths seem to cross by chance – as in an episodic film, for example “Four Rooms” from 1995, in which a hotel becomes an occasion to show the simultaneity of different lives and life situations of people, or in “Paris je t’aime” from 2006, where the city parallels different people, their decisions and thoughts. In Balthus’ work, it is a street corner on which the various protagonists come together: an elderly lady with a stick, a man with a dog and a baguette, an elderly gentleman crouching on the sidewalk, a toddler playing with a doll, a young girl greeting a baby looking out of the window, a man leaning in the door frame, and a woman standing on the street, closing her eyes and taking on a pose of thought.
While everyone is in motion, the latter two pause – and so does the time of the others. In doing so, they point out to us, the viewers, the artificiality of the situation. This is also confirmed when the sum of the protagonists is viewed soberly: All ages are represented in the – now one must say – symbolic image. Or with the words of Wim Wenders in the exhibition catalogue: “It represents […] so much more than just a street scene; somehow it [captures] human existence in a mysteriously frozen moment of eternity”.
The image is very large and, if you stand in front of it, it has the effect of seeing yourself as part of the scene. But this is as artificial and theatrical as one – at least me – sometimes feels in everyday life on the street, when suddenly everything seems to be staged, just a big Truman show. When you take the perspective of the omniscient narrator and see yourself among the others as one of many. One’s own individual, complex, multi-layered life suddenly becomes schematic alongside the other equally individual, complex, multi-layered lives – which is sad and particularly beautiful at the same time. Sad, because one has to realize that one is not the only one in the world around whom everything revolves. Beautiful, because the feeling gives permission to take oneself less seriously.
This is how I look at Passage du Commerce- Saint-André. I turn into the street and suddenly I see the world as a stage in front of me. The man in the doorway perceives me. What kind of man is that? It looks as if he’s always standing there watching the action. But maybe he stepped out of the house to take a breath, because he fought with his wife, girlfriend or even lover. It is more likely that he will pass the time. Perhaps he works in the kitchen of a small restaurant and pauses for a moment, shaking out the cloth he is holding in his hands. Perhaps he doesn’t even think about the food shortage a decade before, during the Second World War. And how much better they, the French, are now. And the gentleman opposite on the sidewalk? Where does he come from, what kind of life does he lead? What makes him crouch on the ground and stare into emptiness? With what elegance, on the other hand, the slender, neat younger man with his even slimmer baguette struts: so upright and determined. Nothing is ignored by him, even his ass is tense. The old lady can be heard murmuring in front of her again, she certainly goes shopping.
So you could fantasize more and more
The picture reminds me of a performance by Ins Wuttke – whereby performance as a category actually falls far short – which also raised the question of when exactly the theatre space begins. For this work entitled “Strategies of Observing” (2013), Wuttke had closed a long street section in Karlsruhe (later also in Giessen and Pforzheim) to allow actors invited for observation to stroll there. So everything that happened in the street was arranged, but in an improvised way, without a script. The mere observation of others, and conversely the knowledge of being observed by others, has turned the natural, self-evident walking and looking into a staging. That’s why it’s so important that the man in the door frame on the Balthus painting looks at the viewer and that the woman is turned towards him: Only in this way can the painting show us the staging of the supposedly random everyday scene in a small Parisian street. Because you observe each other and the moment you look at yourself, you begin to behave the way you think you do ‘normally’, ‘in reality’. Both works tempt the viewer to oscillate between reality and stagedness, thus acknowledging the absurdity that sometimes appears in everyday situations. Both works place the viewer in the role of the flâneur, the epicure of the street (especially the passage), who walks and looks very slowly – at the architecture, the shops, the people – while everything and everyone around him is in a hurry.
What is striking about Passage du Commerce- Saint-André is that none of the protagonists has anything to do with the other. Each is for himself and occupied with himself, has his own motives, goals, thoughts. A pleasant, self-evident anonymity dominates the picture, which for a long time and above all by city critics was perceived as antisocial and held responsible for social decay. Or in other words – that of the secret agent, which Walter Benjamin also quoted in a 1938 text on the Flaneur: “It is almost impossible to maintain a good way of life in a densely massed population, where each individual is unknown to everyone else, so to speak, and therefore does not have to blush before anyone else. Well, today exactly the opposite comes under criticism (although the same episode, isolation, is named): transparency. Too much data would be revealed, too little anonymity preserved. What is the relationship between anonymity and being social? Benjamin interprets the words of the cited secret agent as follows: “[T]he masses” – and thus the anonymity conditioned by them – “is the asylum that protects the antisocial from his persecutors”. This is even the “origin of the detective story”. The asocial is here equated with the criminal – a short circuit, which, incidentally, is still valid, after all, even today surveillance technologies are usually justified by the fact that they protect against crime.
Back to the characters of Balthus
They are rarely social, but always contemplative and occupied with themselves. They dream or are bored, although they are two, three or four. They are highly psychologized figures of whom we don’t know what they are thinking about, but we are inspired to think about them. But you don’t come to any conclusions. The figures close themselves up to the viewers, posing puzzles that cannot be solved. It could be that this is why the pictures are so mistrusted. The distrust does not only arise because it is now generally assumed that Balthus’s works are those of a pedophile, but also because the protagonists do not reveal anything about themselves. We are no longer accustomed to this kind of secrecy. When we stroll through the net, we get so much information, even details, that only gaps in a story about a person have to be filled. But nothing has to be invented, as in the contemplation of the works of Balthus.
“An exhibition on Balthus is a special challenge for a museum,” write the curators of the exhibition on the website of the Fondation Beyeler, trying to continue the discussion on the painting Thérèse rêvant. I didn’t really want to go further into Térèse and the debate about the ban on images. Nevertheless, at least in a brief hint I follow the request of Sam Keller, Raphaël Bouvier and Michiko Kono.