12 December 2019

Girl, in Still Life

Looking at the Book of Balthus

Johanna Ekström

Balthus, The Living Room (detail), 1943.

When I was a child, there was a book about the Polish artist Balthus in the small library at our country home. It was dad’s book, big and heavy. The skin between my thumb and index finger stretched taut when I took it down from the shelf. Sometimes I would sit at the table there in the library and page through the book. The table was by a window that looked out on a forest of firs. The light from the window was dim and pale; it seemed to lack strength and direction.

I recognized the color palette in the book from museum visits with my parents. We always made our way to the hall with “the Dutch.” Those soft, melty tones, light filtering through a colored glass or an open window, tender and clarifying, causing skin or milk or the yellow fabric of a skirt to press forward and move the viewer. Balthus’s tranquility was Dutch. Still-life quiet. There was a desire for sleep or absence.

The images depicted children who looked like siblings. There were also pictures of young girls and their nursemaids. I imagined that they were hired help because, in my eyes, they were too young to be mothers. There was nothing metaphorical about the images, but they were still difficult to interpret and I couldn’t spend a very long time in the rooms with these women and children.

Typically, I would shift my gaze away from those figures in order to focus on the colors and textures. Or rather, that was what I always did, both when it came to living people and works of art. As if too many questions and too much anxiety would arise if I let my gaze settle and force its way into the lives of others. The fear that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back out. As if people, even representations of people, could bite holes in me. Balthus’s paintings aroused apprehension and desire in me but also provoked a sense of meaninglessness. I imagined myself in the depicted room, breaking out, slamming the door, and running down cool marble staircases that brought me hope and vertigo. But even outside—despite the patisseries, shops, and all the people going about their business—there was nothing but silence and a sense of imminent violence without pain. The desire—both for life and for a violence that would shatter the spell of unreality—was in the eye of the beholder.

I understood that desire is awoken by the matte and silent, and given life by the glossy and expressive. By volume and wetness. I associated the good in those images with Maurice Sendak. He, too, used a muted color palette. Green pears, green trees, blue grapes, blue stars. The gentle greenery and equally gentle darkness of his fairytale lands. “‘Mr. Rabbit,’ said the little girl, ‘I need help.’ ‘Help, little girl, I’ll give you help if I can,’ said Mr. Rabbit.”

I page through my dad’s book, my elbows on the rough, gnarled surface of the desk. I can feel the chill of the forest outside. The breath of a stranger. As if someone is watching me through the window. There are eyes in the ceiling, too. Knots in the wood, sort of squinting. They see blindly, like the eyes of runaway horses. I see the girls’ little grooves, the soft pillow between their legs that looks like my own. Their faces are blank and sleeping even though they’re awake. Are their pussies asleep too? What does it mean to be untouched? Mother has told me about Zen Buddhism, about meditation and self-discipline. I hold that in my memory alongside images of hypnosis. Thrilling film sequences of a hypnotist with a swinging object in hand. The snake Kaa in The Jungle Book. How you can sleep without really sleeping. Be awake and yet not. Be dazed and forced to see things you don’t want to see, unable to move, unable to look away.

Dad has told me about poison arrows and venomous snakes from Africa and from storybooks. How can there be both desire and motionlessness in a single image, all at once? Is the image like a thought, invisible in fact? A young woman holds a small girl across her lap. The girl’s genitals are exposed; one of the woman’s breasts is bared. The woman is striking the girl and the girl is touching the woman’s breast. I’m too little to understand that the image contains a Pietà. What I see is that it resembles the letter scale in my mother’s study. A construction evenly balanced. But you can easily disturb it with your own weight.

Does either of my parents look at me as I look at the images? If so, what do they see? A girl with her face turned to the glossy pages, the dim forest light outside, back fairly straight, shoulders hunched forward. Do I feel as if there’s something forbidden about the book? It’s on the shelf, of course, neither hidden away nor placed beyond my reach. Should I know that this isn’t a book for me? Am I what is forbidden, more than the book itself? Am I being watched in secret? Am I aware of it, complicit in the system of looking and being looked at? Still-life alertness.

The girls’ faces are Noh masks. I’ve heard the word. But to me, Noh also means —Swedish for “reach”—and the English no. Unreachable faces, but masks within reach. No-masks that entice one toward an excess of the forbidden. There is a boundlessness to the world that exists between the book and me. Not so between the artist and me. I don’t know what Balthus does within his own world of images. No, this has nothing to do with Balthus, but with the atmosphere, the distance between the girls with their bared pussies in the dreamy rooms and the girl that is me, with my pussy as hairless and pink as theirs. How those parts are my own but perhaps also belong to art, to language, or to my parents. How I don’t know where the boundary is drawn between what is mine and what is theirs, what is mine and what is art’s. What should be hidden and what shared, what unfurled and what preserved.

The child that shuts out the expression of her desires learns very little about what resonance those desires have in the world beyond herself. She loses the map that leads her from the inside out. The map becomes a white stain. I wonder why I know this about myself.

It’s the eye, the gaze from outside, observing, that came into me far too early. This distant eye recalls certain things in detail, and so it’s also the eye that has inhibited me, because it has been difficult to escape that gaze.

When I remember the library scene now, recalling it as a box within a box of reality and narrative construction, I think of the story of the princess and the pea. I think of the zone between art and recipient. How, as a child, you get a little fleck of experience in your eye, something you can later use as an adult. A tiny shard, a pea, which under layers of years and self-preservation, time and experience, forms an imprint on your retina. A shadow that, in the best case, can serve as an extra eye. Not as in seeing double, but as in seeing in another direction.

Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Johanna Ekström is a Swedish writer and artist living in Stockholm. Her latest book Dagbok 1996–2001 (Diary 1996–2001) was published in 2016 by Albert Bonniers Förlag. Her next book Meningarna (The Sentences) will be published in 2020.