Having refused to state what the film was about elsewhere, director David Lynch later said of Lost Highway:
“It’s about a couple who feel that somewhere, just on the border of consciousness – or on the other side of that border – are bad, bad problems. But they can’t bring them into the real world and deal with them. So this bad feeling is just hovering there, and the problems abstract themselves and become other things. It just becomes like a bad dream. There are unfortunate things that happen to people, and this story is about that. It depicts an unfortunate occurrence, and gives you the feeling of a man in trouble. A thinking man in trouble.” Lynch on Lynch.
“I like to remember things my own way.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“How I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened.”
The Guitar Lesson is Balthus’s most notorious yet least discussed work. No music is being played in the scene depicted, as the tutorial has turned instead into a sexual initiation rite. Most of Balthus’s writer and poet friends have passed over the work in silence. The composition is based on a Pieta, 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. Balthus depicts a female music teacher holding a young girl across her thighs in lieu of the toylike musical instrument abandoned on the floor. The child makes no attempt to struggle. Her body arches in anticipation of pleasure or, perhaps, pain, her posture evoking the rigor mortis of its celebrated prototype on the lap of the Virgin Mary. Her female teachers hands are positioned on the girl as for playing the guitar: one near her exposed crotch, another grasping her hair.
Similar themes are of course a mainstay of popular pornography: in book illustrations devoted to sadomasochistic scenes, the stout school mistress who seduces her pliable pupil has long been a favorite, especially in Wilhelminian Germany of the late 19th century.
The history of The Guitar Lesson is as interesting as its subject matter. During the two-week exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, The Guitar Lesson hung in the gallery’s back room, accessible only to a select few. It remained unsold at the time, and Soby had no competition in buying this work, shortly before the war, from Pierre Colle. To ensure its passage through U.S. customs the painting was covered by another canvas representing a religious subject with angels.
In 1977 Matisse showed The Guitar Lesson in a small retrospective exhibition of Balthus’s work at his gallery in New York. The catalogue reproduced the picture for the very first time. Forty-three years had passed since the work had last been seen in public. This image, shocking yet somewhat naive, erotic yet still oddly chaste, had lost little of its impact; the picture attracted a steady stream of gallery visitors.
In 1978 Pierre Matisse donated the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in memory of his late wife Patricia. However, four years later, just before the opening at MOMA of a small installation devoted to the Balthus works owned by the museum, an important trustee happened upon The Guitar Lesson and was so shocked by it that in the end the painting had to be returned.