An Innocent, Almost Darwinian Roots of Philistinism


Balthazar Klossowski/Balthus’ “The Street”, 1933

Balthus’ “The Street” is a kind of a puppet theater separated by a blink of an eye from becoming tableau vivant which in the next moment – the puppet-master’s manipulative action – animates itself again and immediately after freezes again. Balthus’ painting, as if, hypnotizes us into this game – in one moment we see people in the action and in the next as static picture.

Why the painting can be seen as the puppet’s movements and why these movements in next moment become frozen and then another way around? It seems – the painter suggests that something is very particular or may be even wrong with these people on the street. They can be perceived either as puppets or as statuettes, they don’t have human status, and the street on which we see them is stylized as a decoration. What is all of this – a toy-city, a decorative street and wooden figures?

By making the street the focus of attention Balthus makes the social setting of human life the area of his analysis. Even personal life and personal bonds are represented as a part of social life and this fact by itself can mean that in this painting Balthus rather intentionally more than intuitively follows the sociological perspective on people’s lives. We understand that the personages of the painting are human but puppet- or animation cartoon-like characters. They are all incorrigibly and remarkably artificial.

People whom Balthus represents here can easily fit the universal category of philistines. The very dynamism of their life style is static. Their life is like the Freudian unconscious – beyond changes of time. Their living is posing – but their posing can include whatever life will put into them. That’s why the very movements of the figures in “Balthus street” are static. They’re inert even when they’re rushing. They are deadened even if they will jump up. Philistines are “immortal” but they don’t know it. Life lives them rather than they live life. In this sense they’re like the carriers of Darwin’s law of adaptation. In the Soviet Union they would be for communism, in US for money-making and consumerism. Puppet Theater and tableau vivant are two aspects of the life of philistines. They’re people of tautological existence – existence as a goal in itself. Conformism – taking life as it happens to be – is their modus operandi.

Let’s not delay much longer the pleasure of concentrating on the very personages of Balthus’ “The Street”. Let’s start with the “existential center” of the street – the worker dressed in white cloth (humorously idealized proletarian), crossing from one to another side of the street. He is carrying a wooden board which is simultaneously covering his face and, as if, cutting into his shoulder and back – it, as if, has become part of his body. Between the worker and the viewers we see a little girl with a face of an adult woman – she is playing with a small racket and ball. Her exaggeratedly adult face and giant (in comparison with her body) head in a combination with her ball-hitting (“spanking” the ball function of the racket) tells us that the girl is unconsciously playing mother – that she occupied with/imitating woman’s dominant role in child-raring. Farther we discern two women (seen from behind), both occupied with their business and feeling no necessity to show us their faces, one in a long dress-robe of colorful black and the other with black color skirt – holding a little child looking like a young sailor looking like a small child. The both women are, probably, affiliated with particular religious sects. Among the two teenagers of the painting, one is energetically “marching” right towards the viewers. His facial expression is demonstrating to pedestrians and the viewers his determination and dedication. His naïve face with fearlessly opened eyes is combination of thoughtless trust of the world and optimism – a typical expression of a conformist youth dreaming of his social success. He reminds us of the early screen characters of the American movie-star Mickey Rooney in his young age. Pay attention to the right hand of this boy that is slightly touching a place of a hidden pocket in his jacket, perhaps to show everybody that he got some money for his work. And finally we see a boy who is trying to have his way with a girl right amidst the day light. He is grabbing the girl with a greedy gesture which confirms his approximate but some knowledge of the girls’ anatomy. He doesn’t need to see the street – he is different from the marching boy – he is concentrating on his internal sensations. With the girl he is, obviously, on the right path. The girl is trying to run away, but at the same time she is not protecting herself with her arms-hands. The last personage of the painting is the young cook – standing or walking on pedestrian side, taking a break or attracting attention to the eatery he works for.

The street Balthus painted here is rue Bourbon le-Chateau in Paris, but it could be in many others European cities. The time represented is close to 1933. Herr Hitler is either already taken official power in Germany or very soon will. What it means for France? What can it mean for these people we see here? German occupation of France is looming. But why don’t we see worries or at least concerns on human faces? Many French, of course, still remember the WWI, when so many were killed and wounded, and many are crippled. But the people we see in Balthus’ painting are out of reality. Let’s not forget – philistines are creatures who are isolating themselves from everything unpleasant – that’s how they adapt and survive. But even philistines can be exterminated by wars and totalitarian despotism.

What Balthus demonstrating to us today is not only the past which for us is present because high-tech weapons became much stronger in its exterminating power than before, but the fatal dangers to our ecological well-being and physical and mental health on part of fossil fuels and chemical poisoning of the environment we are part of. But the people on the streets of the American cities continue to live as the personages of his painting. We today are not just similar with the inhabitants of Paris as Balthus shows them – we are more them than they were then. Our enemies are not outside of our borders but we ourselves who have lost contact with reality because it is not entertaining enough for us – not a fun. “The Street” was used by the philistines, but in the 21st century we are robotically enhanced philistines. That’s what it means when human life and human dreams are turned into animation cartoon turning into tableau vivant and back and again…

Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de) - 1908-2001
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) – 1908-2001