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Sex on His Mind
by Phyllis Tuchman
APRIL 9, 2012 TAGS:
The art world is divided into people who either passionately love Balthus’s paintings or else are offended by them. Though it’s almost impossible not to admire the masterful way the aristocratic artist wielded his brushes and palette knives, it’s also difficult to remain indifferent to his provocative subject matter. Many of his canvases feature adolescent girls posed seductively on chairs and couches or stretched suggestively across countless beds or involved in aspects of their toilette. Balthus, who would have turned 104 on Feb. 29, also made portraits of cosmopolitan French men and women such as the Vicomtesse de Noailles, an important collector, and Pierre Matisse, his dealer in America; enchanting landscapes of France and Switzerland; and haunting street scenes of Paris.
It’s tempting to call Balthus the Vladimir Nabokov of the visual arts. However, it’s Nabokov who was the Balthus of literature. The French artist was executing pictures of Lolita-like vixens long before the Russian émigré author wrote his scandalous novel. As it was, both men were sophisticated stylists dedicated to formal elegance.
Throughout his long life (he died on Feb 18, 2001 at the age of 91) Balthus remained an intransigent realist. Against the backdrop of a century that saw vast political upheavals on one hand and a panoply of art movements on the other — Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Conceptualism — Balthus went his own way, never reflecting his times in his work. He never wavered from his commitment to portraying people and places through paint on canvas.
A precocious youngster born in Paris on Feb. 29, 1908, Balthasar Klossowski had lots of heady, formative influences. To begin with, his Prussian parents were painters, and his father was also an art historian with a doctorate in fine arts. His dad’s friends included the Nabi artist Pierre Bonnard as well as Julius Meier-Graefe, one of the grandest all-time art critics. Balthus was raised in Berlin, Bern, and Geneva after the family left France at the onset of World War I (they were German citizens).
In 1921, the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, a friend of Balthus’ mother, saw 40 ink drawings in which the 11-year-old boy depicted the adventures of Mitsou, his stray tomcat. Rilke found a publisher for them and then wrote the book’s foreword. The cover identified the artist by his childhood nickname, then spelled “Baltusz.” In a letter to the poet in 1922, the publisher Kurt Wolff observed, “the ability of the little boy to translate his feelings into graphic expression is astounding and almost frightening.”
Balthus, who studied and assisted a Swiss sculptor for several summers, joined his older brother in Paris in 1924. While his sibling worked for the writer Andre Gide, a position arranged by Rilke, Balthus got a day job constructing sets for programs mounted by Les Soirees de Paris, which commissioned theatrical evenings from the likes of Pablo Picasso and Andre Derain. At night, Balthus attended drawing classes. Bonnard, among others, sent him to the Louvre to make copies after Nicolas Poussin. Months later, in Italy, he also copied frescoes by Piero della Francesca as well as Masaccio.
During military service in Morocco, Balthus was much taken with the local light and colors. And a friendship with Derain, formerly a Fauve artist who had become a more conservative painter, became yet another decisive influence in the development of his art.
Balthus was only 25 in 1934 when he exhibited five remarkable paintings in his first solo show — one of the few he ever held — at the Galerie Pierre. The works, which included young women being groped and in various states of undress, caused an uproar. At a time when abstractions by, say, Piet Mondrian, Alexander Calder, and Joan Miro were garnering attention, Balthus was moving along a different track. Some of the figures were based on frescoes the artist copied in Arezzo and Florence while others called to mind paintings in the Louvre, including a nude by Lucas Cranach as well as a lamentation of Christ. And aspects of the subject matter related to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in the Looking Glass as well as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. (A few years earlier, Jean Cocteau based sections of his novel, Les Enfants Terribles, on Balthus and his brother.)
When, in 1936, Balthus, using a subdued palette, depicted Andre Derain clothed in a striped robe with a model in the background, he created a fearsome painting that’s better known than Derain’s post-Fauvist canvases. Two years later, Balthus’ dealer commissioned a portrait of Miro with his daughter Dolores in honor of the Spanish artist’s 45th birthday; it uncannily prefigures photographs by Irving Penn in its directness and spare truths.
Balthus was a slow, methodical artist. In a career that started with a bang and that spanned seven decades, he produced fewer than 400 paintings. He was still working shortly before he died: a brand new nude in a landscape based on a painting by Poussin was included in a group show at the National Gallery in London in 2000.
Because his canvases have such a conservative cast, it seems as if Balthus went against the grain of 20th-century art. But despite his painting figures in an age dominated by abstraction, his staged dramas share his era’s interest in space and time. In an understated way, when he depicted men, women and children in stark interiors, he was combining Freudian notions of sexuality with geometric constructs as rigorous as anything created by the de Stijl artists or the Minimalists. Because he was such a classicist, it’s not surprising that he served for 17 years as the director of the French Academy in Rome, a post once been held by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres.
When representational art and traditional practices returned to fashion, Balthus finally had an impact on younger artists. His solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984 could not have been better timed. As young artists like Eric Fischl began once again to portray figures with oil paints, Balthus set a sterling example. More recently, his spirit looms in canvases by the German Neo Rauch as well as the 40-something Americans John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage. Sometimes slow but steady does win the race.
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