The Street, Balthus’s first large painting, was one of several that scandalized audiences when it was included in the artist’s earliest solo exhibition, in Paris in 1934. Balthus rendered each of the figures in his scene of Paris’s rue Bourbon-le-Chateau frozen mid-movement; none of them seem to notice the aggressive sexual struggle underway at the painting’s far left. Balthus eschewed stylistic categorization, but The Street was of great interest to Surrealist artists for its rendering of a crowded street as an uncanny site of mental isolation and for its exploration of sexual taboos.
Gallery label from 2009.
Though set in a real place—the rue Bourbon-le-Château, Paris—The Street has the intensity of a dream. The figures in this strange frozen dance are precisely placed in a shallow, friezelike line, yet except for the struggling couple on the left, they don’t interact at all. The toque-wearing chef isn’t even human—he is a pavement sign for a restaurant—but he stands no more stiffly than the other characters, who, stylized and solid, seem less to walk than to pose.
Part of the work’s tension comes from the diversity in the traditions it fuses. Its receding architectural perspective emulates Renaissance geometry, for Balthus much admired Quattrocento artists, particularly Piero della Francesca. But another, quite different influence links him to his Surrealist peers: long after painting The Street, he would still say that he had never stopped seeing things as he saw them in childhood. He well knew children’s books such as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories, with their illustrations by John Tenniel, and, indeed, the girl caught in the tussle has been said to be Alice herself; the youth in the center resembles Tweedledum or Tweedledee; and the man with the plank could be Carroll’s carpenter, without his walrus companion-though his simultaneous resemblance to a figure in Piero’s Discovery and Proving of the True Cross, at Arezzo (c. 1455), suggests a different symbolic register.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 165.