In a 1968 retrospective of his work at the Tate Gallery, the Polish-French modern artist Balthus once prepared a biography for his influential paintings that read: “Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.” And those pictures are kinda pervy.
Luckily, American Apparel founder Dov Charney loves pervy. Perhaps that is why American Apparel has seemingly paid homage to Balthus by modeling a number of its ads after the painter’s sexually suggestive works of nude pubescents.
The similarity between the works of Balthus and American Apparel’s advertising was first noticed by New York City graphic designer and artist, Linda Eckstein, who pointed out the likenesses on her blog after seeing a recent Balthus retrospective at the Met. Although American Apparel’s ads can’t be said to be direct lifts, it seems pretty clear that whoever is shooting these ads is a Balthus fan. American Apparel has not yet responded to our request for comment.
For example, in Balthus’s 1939 painting, Thérèse on a Bench Seat, the titular girl is shown in a red cardigan, flashing her underwear as her knees are lifted to shoulder height and one hand is used to steady her balance against the floor. This fairly improbable posture is repeated in American Apparel’s catalog in a photo for the “Girly Cardigan Crew Neck,” which sheds Thérèse of her skirt and replaces her bench seat with a gray couch but otherwise largely recreates the pose.
The similarities continue. One advertisement virtually recreates Balthus’s 1955 painting, Nude In Front Of A Mantel. Likewise, there are ads that replicate the poses of Balthus’s models from Girl on a Bed, The Living Room, and even Balthus’s smutty self-portrait, The Guitar Lesson, in which the artist paints himself as a stern female music teacher pulling a contortionist student’s hair while simultaneously stimulating her between her legs.
Homage or coincidence? Given what we know of Dov Charney’s sordid proclivities, it’s totally possible that his marketing tastes just naturally co-align with those of the French modernist. It’s also totally possible that American Apparel would borrow inspiration from one of the 20th century’s most provocative and suggestive artists for its brand strategy. This is a company, after all, whose advertisements have been banned in Britain for being racy, and which regularly hires pornographic actresses like Faye Reagan, Sasha Grey, and Lauren Phoenix to star in its advertising campaigns.
In advertising, sex sells, and provocation equals publicity. Few companies capitalize on those cardinal laws of marketing better than American Apparel. If it borrows a little bit of inspiration from an artist like Balthus, is it any wonder? Rare is the artist who can make a painting of even a fully clothed girl seem utterly scandalous, but Balthus was one of them. That’s what makes him American Apparel’s dream ad man. American Apparel might not be able to hire Balthus for itself, but the company can certainly channel his works.
If you’d like to see some of Balthus’s work for yourself, there is an exhibition of his work underway at New York’s Metropolitan Museum through January 12, 2014.