Who knew Mickalene Thomas did erotica?
In her 2008 painting, Thomas takes a scandalous Balthus work and remakes it in a more loving way
La Leçon d’amour, the 2008 painting by Mickalene Thomas recalls two earlier works, the first sacred, the second very much profane. The first, as our new book, The Art of The Erotic points out, is the pietà, a common image in Medieval and Renaissance art, perhaps best exemplified by Michelangelo’s 1499 sculpture, of the Virgin Mary holding Christ’s body after the crucifixion.
So far, so straightforward. However, the second is “Balthus’s notorious painting The Guitar Lesson,” explains The Art of the Erotic, “which was considered so sexually explicit when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1934 that it was hidden behind a curtain in a back room.”
Balthus’s picture, which depicts an act of homosexual paedophilia between an older woman and a younger girl, is wilfully provocative. “Balthus’s work blatantly conflates Freudian overtones and the traditional pietà, and this may have disturbed audiences and left them gawking at the artist’s subversion of Christianity.”
Thomas trained at Pratt Institute and Yale, and possesses a strong grasp of art history; however, she painted her work with no such intention in mind. “Her paintings use a mixture of media; acrylic paint, enamel and also rhinestone crystals that heighten the painting’s glamour and seduction,” explains our new book. “The Virgin Mary of the traditional pietà is here replaced by an African American woman. The reclining girl looks out of the painting with a strong, uncompromising gaze. Her sensuality is put on show, raising questions about how women are objectified and represented in art. Measuring 3 metres (10 feet) across and 2.4 metres (8 feet) tall, this is an impressively powerful picture of female sexuality.”
The work’s name, La Leçon d’amour or The Love Lesson clearly acknowledges Balthus’s painting, but it doesn't seem as though Thomas isn’t honouring Balthus, but correcting him. No one is unwillingly objectified here, instead both sexual partners are raised to the status of beautiful lovers, and homosexual love is as holy and revered as the bond between Christ and the Virgin Mary.