The Guitar Lesson  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Guitar Lesson [1] (French: La Leçon de guitare) is a 1934 painting by Balthus. It depicts a sexually explicit lesbian scene featuring a young girl nude from the waist down and her teacher who has one breast exposed. The painting debuted at Gallerie Pierre in Paris in 1934 at Balthus's premiere solo exhibition and even then it was hung in a back room where it was concealed behind a curtain. The exposition was reviewed by Antonin Artaud in "La Nouvelle Revue française" 22, no. 248 of May 1934.

It is Balthus's most notorious and compelling painting and a perfect example of his vision. It presents a woman with a girl draped over her lap. The girl's skirt has ridden up to her belly as the woman pulls her hair and has her hand poised over the girl's vagina. The girl's hand is raised to pinch the woman's erect nipple.

In a letter as he was preparing the painting Balthus described it as "a rather ferocious one." "It's an erotic scene. But you have to understand, it is not in the least quirky, none of the usual little naughtiness you show around under cover with winks and nudges. No, I want to proclaim in broad daylight, with sincerity and feeling, all the throbbing tragedy of a drama of the flesh, proclaim vociferously, the deep-rooted laws of instinct. Thus to return to the passionate content of art. Down with the hypocrites!"

The composition is based on a Pietà, probably the Louvre's mid-15th-century Pieta of Villeneuve-les-Avignons, to judge from the near identical height and comparable sizes of the figures.

The work was lovingly re-interpreted by Japanese photographer Naoto Kawahara in 2007 [2].

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