This has been an important year in art; if not for the progression of landmark exhibitions or record-breaking auctions, then for the vehement and ongoing conversation about freedom of expression versus censorship, ignited by heightened political turbulence. The latest debate takes place in New York City, as The Met defends an 80-year-old portrait of a young girl whose pose is deemed disturbingly sexual.
A new petition launched by Mia Merrill, an entrepreneur in New York City, is demanding the removal of a nearly 80-year-old painting titled Thérèse Dreaming (1938) by the French artist Balthus (born Balthasar Klossowski, 1908–2001) from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met describes it thus: “With closed eyes, Balthus’s pubescent model is lost in thought. Thérèse Blanchard, who was about twelve or thirteen at the time this picture was made, and her brother Hubert were neighbors of Balthus in Paris. She appears alone, with her cat, or with her brother in a series of eleven paintings done between 1936 and 1939.” As it stands, the painting is on view at The Met’s 5th Avenue location, in gallery 907.
Thérèse Dreaming depicts the young girl in casual repose. In a beige dress, she sits back with one foot on the bench in front of her. Her raised leg causes her dress to fold back, revealing her underwear. To many onlookers, this painting won’t raise any major red flags. However, it sits within the male artist’s lengthy practice of depicting young women and girls in various states of undress—and often.
In light of the recent #MeToo campaign amid an ongoing string of sexual assault allegations made by women against innumerable men in the workforce, a petition posted on Care 2 is now circulating with demands for the painting’s removal from the museum given the “current political climate around sexual assault.”
“It is disturbing that the Met would proudly display such an image,” writes Merill on Care 2. “They are a renowned institution and one of the largest, most respected art museums in the United States. The artist of this painting, Balthus, had a noted infatuation with pubescent girls and this painting is undeniably romanticizing the sexualization of a child.”
While Merrill is not calling for the removal of every Balthus from the museum, she ultimately argues that by exhibiting the portrait, “The Met is romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children.” So far, the petition has received over 8,700 signatures. Why Thérèse Dreaming is the principal target over other questionable paintings by Balthus displayed at The Met—Nude in Front of a Mantel (1955) or Study for the Painting ‘Nude Resting’ (1972), for example—remains unclear.
In 2013, The Met held a retrospective of the artist’s work, titled Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations. In acknowledgement of such “provocations,” The Met placed a note at the show’s entrance stating: “Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors.”
“If The Met had the wherewithal to reference the disturbing nature of Balthus,” Merrill argues, “they understand the implications of displaying his art.”
So an age-old question rears its head again: to what extent may an artist claim the freedom to explore and subsequently portray a taboo? According to The Met’s representative, the museum will not bow to the petition’s demands and remove the painting due to contemporary sensitivities.
“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,” Kenneth Weine, the museum’s chief communications officer, told The New York Times.
Thérèse Dreaming is one of several artworks deemed too controversial for exhibition this year. In March, Dana Schutz became the center of a fiery controversy over her painting titled Open Casket (2016), which depicted the harrowing demise of Emmett Till.
“It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” responded Hannah Black, who led a forceful opposition against the painting’s exhibition at the Whitney Biennial in New York City. Among fellow artists and members of the public, she called for the painting’s removal from the Biennial, followed by its destruction.
In May, activist artist Sam Durant made headlines upon the installation of a large wooden sculpture titled Scaffold at Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Walker Art Center. Akin to a gallows, the sculpture referenced the merciless mass execution of Dakota men by the American army in 1862. Durant agreed to transfer his rights to Scaffold over to protestors, who destroyed the installation.
In the case of Thérèse Dreaming, Merrill doesn’t believe her request is a call for censorship. In an update to the petition made on the morning of December 5, she added: “I am not asking for this painting to be censored or destroyed! …I would consider this petition a success if the Met included a message as brief as, ‘Some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing, given Balthus’ artistic infatuation with young girls.’”