A Photographic Portrayal of the Paintings of Balthus (2006-11):
Hisaji Hara‘s impulse to restage the paintings of Balthus as photographs came to him suddenly and unexpectedly in 2005. He describes at a moment of rest, when he was slipping in and out of sleep, that a painting by Balthus (‘Thérèse Dreaming’) suddenly flashed across his mind. This instance led to a desire to explore Balthus’ paintings in detail through photographic expression. (Shore, 2014: 112) Balthus is a controversial figure due to his depiction of adolescent girls that have strange, sinister and sexual undertones – ‘Thérèse Dreaming’ was subject of a petition to be removed from the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2017. (See article here.) Hara describes Balthus as being uninterested in artistic movements and trends, such as Modernist values that drove artists to innovate. He was driven to achieve “universality” in his paintings and was “stuck to a deeper tradition of painting”. Although not stated directly, this seems to suggest that Hara views Balthus as being driven by artistic desires rather than there being anything sinister at play. This is potentially the case, but it is strange not to acknowledge the issue. Despite their success as beautiful and painterly studies, O’Hagan (2012) believes that Hara’s photographs replace the “strangeness” of a Balthus painting with a heightened formality and unrealness in which “the dark suggestiveness of the paintings is replaced by something else, a mood that is altogether less provocative and, at times, almost serene in its calmness.” To me, the photographs are just as difficult to read as Balthus’, the carefully posed models are placed in such unusual ways that they look unnatural, and even sinister. (Hara states that many of the poses were difficult for his models to hold for more than a few seconds which explains some of this.) The dressing of the model in a school uniform is also problematic for me – in exactly the same way that Balthus’ paintings are somewhere between innocence and provocation. Although girls in school uniform are iconic in Japanese visual culture, these are not always innocent in their depictions – by using a model who, although still young, has the appearance of an adult rather than an adolescent could be seen as more closely approaching the language of pornography than having a model who is actually of school age.
Clark (2012: 45-7) argues that Balthus’ work is at once “naive and sinister” with a sense of foreboding fairytale mystery. Hara’s work possess a similar sense of transgression – similar but not the same as they are less shocking, less raw, less racy than teh originals:
“Hara opts for a combination of a documentary record with the drama of a film still. He specialises in a mood that is altogether more serene, in turn ushering in a sense of unreality and otherworldliness that presides over these staged pictures – the obverse of what Balthus accomplished.”
Rather than using digital technology, Hara goes to great lengths to create his pictures with traditional analogue techniques. Using a large format camera, shades are used to hide portions of the film in order that multiple exposures can be made. A giant smoke machine is used to create the atmosphere of Balthus’ work which is emphasised by changes to the light and focus between each exposure as they are built up to the final image.
I feel conflicted about my opinion of Hara’s series – the images are undoubtedly successful in terms of aesthetics and the use of Japanese models provides a interesting cultural point of difference to the original artworks. The images contain as much of the tension between innocence and erotism as the original works, this is not something that I necessarily find problematic, although I think it is disingenuous for Hara not to acknowledge this. Personally, copying another artists work in this way is not something that interests me as something I would like to pursue myself. However, I do admire Hara’s technique and execution of this project – the final images are certainly beautiful and evocative on their own terms.
Bellafante, G. (2017) We Need to Talk About Balthus. The New York Times, 8th December 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/08/nyregion/we-need-to-talk-about-balthus.html [accessed 7th May 2019]
Clark, T. (2012) The Balthus Poems. Foam Magazine Issue #31. Available at: https://issuu.com/foam-magazine/docs/08_058_ref._all [accessed 31st July 2019]
O’Hagan, S. (2012) Hisaji Hara – review. The Observer, 26th February 2012. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/26/hisaji-hara-photography-hoppen-review?CMP=twt_gu [accessed 6th May 2019]
Shore, R. (2014) Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera. London: Laurence King.