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Balthus

French Painter, Illustrator, and Theatrical Set Designer

Born: February 29, 1908 - Paris, France
Died: February 18, 2001 - Rossiniere, Switzerland
Movements and Styles:
Interwar Classicism
"I always feel the desire to look for the extraordinary in ordinary things; to suggest, not to impose, to leave always with a slight touch of mystery in my paintings.""
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"Painting is a language which cannot be replaced by another language, I don't know what to say about what I paint, really."
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"Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known."
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"I was born in this century, but I belong much more to the 19th century."
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"Everything now is pornographic. Advertising is pornographic. You see a young woman putting on some beauty product who looks like she's having an orgasm. I've never made anything pornographic."
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"The subject has no importance. The subject for me is always a pretext to make a painting."
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"One must always draw, draw with the eyes, when one cannot draw with a pencil."
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"Painting is the passage from the chaos of emotions to the order of the possible."
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Summary of Balthus

An unusual figure in the history of 20th century painting, Balthus both traveled among and drew upon the work of other major artists of his time, while at the same time following a unique individual trajectory. He was mentored by, friends of, and/or even collaborated with seminal creative figures from different eras, including Antonin Artaud, André Breton, and Rainer Maria Rilke, while cultivating his own highly refined style of painting. The scenes he usually depicted were very ordinary bourgeois interiors or outdoor settings, which nonetheless managed to reveal the heightened inner states of his subjects (often young females) as well as the states of mind of those who might be viewing them.

Accomplishments

  • Balthus's work demonstrates a commitment to classical painting while applying those techniques upon subject matter that reflects the concerns of the modern era in a highly restrained yet nonetheless often charged manner, revealing signs of sexuality, social transgression and anomie.
  • His channeling of the concerns of numerous thinkers and practitioners from other creative disciplines included the distillation of ideas and attitudes from individuals and artistic movements. Some ideas included renderings of exceptional psychological states and licentious interpersonal encounters.
  • Balthus's often disturbing imagery brings to the fore questions of propriety of displaying such works in public museums. His blatant violations of taboo topics were acceptable in the context of the French libertine avant-garde, but are now deemed improper by liberal-minded audiences.
  • His work in set design for stage production in ballet, opera and theater informed his own narrative ability to impart dramatic trajectories to the scenes he portrayed in his paintings of ordinary settings.
  • His investment in figurative image-making helped reinforce the value of representational painting as a critical force in a century which saw many artistic movements turn toward abstraction.

Important Art by Balthus

Progression of Art
1933

The Street

In this scene of urban life, a tableau featuring a larger group of individuals than the more intimate couples or single individuals he usually painted - can be seen as his setting in the modern era the sort of outdoor group scenes rendered allegorically by early painters such as Brueghel and Bosch. He updates this depiction of shared - or parallel -- sociality by combining the enigmatic affects, stiff postures and heightened atmosphere of Surrealism with a classical composing of figures in architectural space. For the latter, he draws on some of the techniques established in Renaissance-era painting, with carefully laid out proportions for each element, and the foreshortening of the individual figures at their different degrees of depth in a vanishing perspective for the viewer. He offers a more refined take on some of the ambiguous portraiture than his German contemporary Otto Dix produced around this same time, or the group tableaus in modern spaces that Max Beckmann was also rendering.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art - New York

1934

Guitar Lesson

This is a prime example of how his symbolic works triggered discomfort in some viewers, and it is a prototypical - if not the ultimate - example of his use of young girls in his paintings. With the exposed lower body of a prepubescent girl and hints of a sexual dalliance with the woman on whose lap she lays, this piece was first displayed at one of his early Paris shows, but hasn't been exhibited in public since it was last shown in New York in 1977.

While the title quite literally can refer to the guitar in the foreground of the composition, he is using it in a more symbolic way - the sitting woman has her arms and hands positioned as though playing a guitar; here, though, the guitar is the body of a young girl. This work also comments on roles of authority and dominance; the young girl is submissively draped over the woman's lap, and her face and limp arms imply little agency, though the girl's hand reaching up to hold on to the somewhat disheveled woman's exposed breast suggests an ambiguity of both pleasure seeking and a more conventional succor of daughter from mother in the image. Conversely, the seated woman is in control of the entire situation, and her face and downward gaze imply dominance over the limp girl.

Here, even the draped pose of this painting references historical works that preceded it; the lifeless body of the girl in the lap of a woman mimics the many versions of the Pieta. While Michelangelo's Virgin Mary looks down lovingly at her dead son, the woman in this painting has a less emotional, more studied gaze, more predatory than loving. Similarly, Christ's lifeless face is shown looking upward, towards a symbolic father/heaven, while Balthus's girl looks out to nowhere, uncertainly lost in the ambiguity of the situation.

Reflecting on the fact that Balthus was raised in a creative household, it is not surprising perhaps that he might challenge the limits of customary moral acceptability through a traditional, figurative genre. As New Yorker magazine art critic Peter Schjeldahl writes: "Balthus sticks us with a moral conundrum, because he can. His elegantly nuanced violations of taboo won for his conservatively figurative art enthusiastic esteem in the largely Surrealist, devoutly libertine Parisian avant-garde of the nineteen-thirties, and secured him a lasting place as one of the 20th century’s greats."

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

1935

Summertime

This is one of his earliest works, hinting at a later use of landscape in his paintings, and it is a prime example of how the subject was far less important to him than the scene. While the woman in the foreground is ostensibly asleep, she has her cane draped over herself, hinting at either injury or a need for protection while she rests. The landscape is clearly the focus of this work, yet it is interesting to consider how he uses the natural features of mountains, valleys, and hills to mimic the curves of the sleeping woman's body. The rolling hill in the foreground has a soft mound of flora at its peak, and behind it jagged mountains meet in soft, split valleys.

One thing to note in relation to the work's title is that while summertime is hinted at in the lush greenery and clear sky, there is also a somewhat desolate darkness to the scene represented in the work that is opposed to the sunnier climate usually associated with the season. Though the woman is able to nap outdoors, she nonetheless presents an enervated, pathetic figure in her posture, and with her use of her cane as an oddly rigid and uncomforting swaddling, rather more a potential instrument that could be deployed quickly as possible weapon of protection if needed.

Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

1937

Girl and Cat

Balthus's early paintings were often studies of his neighbor Therese Blanchard, a young girl either featured alone or with her cat. With her hiked up skirt and open pose, the Therese in Girl and Cat (1937) demonstrates a sensual knowingness far beyond her young years, and she channels ambivalence about both herself and the situation she finds herself in. Her eyes seem to return the viewer's gaze in a challenge, but they also look slightly off center, as though the girl's uncertainty belies her apparent show of confidence. At the same time, this gives the painting a sort of moral ambivalence: is the viewer voyeuristically observing a private moment or does her pose indicate that she is meant to be gazed at? Given the time period and the modern focus on the disenfranchised modern man after World War I, this young girl and her ennui can hint at the artist's attempts to reconcile modern themes of concern with alienation through a more classical figurative painting style.

The cat on the other hand, looks off to the distance, hinting perhaps at another presence in the room. While he sits as sentinel to his young nymphette mistress, he too expresses ambivalence about what is happening in the room. The entire scene suggests disaffection, where every actor plays his or her part, while still only half-comprehending what the larger dynamic of social relations here implies.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

1938

The Victim

This is an excellent example of how he used formal conventions and techniques to create a theatrical setting for his work. For one, the title gives the work a narrative momentum from the outset. We as viewers are unsure whether the subject is wounded, ill, or dead, or if she has been a victim of some other intensive depredation of her body, but her full nakedness does not reflect the sensuality of some of his other depictions of nubile young subjects.

It is interesting to think of this work as one of his explicit attempts to put the onus of interpreting an artwork more fully on the viewer. While the title of the painting does offer a framework in which to view the scene, he is aware that viewers will likely see the work before perhaps encountering the title. That experience could be a potentially jarring experience if a viewer's initial "read" of the scene might suggest sexuality, which then becomes transmuted into a piece about pain.

1938

Therese Dreaming

This work was created the year after Girl and Cat, and towards the end of the period during which he painted Therese. While this girl is in a similar pose to the earlier work, there is a heightened sense of agitation for the subject in the composition. Her eyes are closed and face turned away from the viewer. Therese's body is more defined as an adult; her legs are longer and her face and arms have shed their prepubescent extra weight. Overlapping the title's indication of dreaming, her facial expressions suggest the mixture of possible ecstatic pleasure and an uncertain, uncomfortable or even pained response to unwanted shared sensual experience.

Here, even the cat assumes a different role, no longer a would-be stalwart sentinel but now a predator, albeit a domestic one, intently and sensually lapping at the bowl at Therese's feet.

The heightening of both the sensual experience depicted and the ambivalence of its subject may hint also at the impending loss of innocence in the painter's relationship with Therese at the time of the piece's production, as the following year he ceased painting her.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

1938

Pierre Matisse

Balthus did not just paint young girls and cats; he also created portraits of his friends, some of the most notable cultural figures of the early-20th century. This portrait of Pierre Matisse, son of the painter Henri Matisse, who ran a successful gallery in New York City, points to both the personal and business relationship the two men enjoyed with one another. In many ways Balthus's career in the US is attributable to Matisse's promotion of his work, as after his 1938 solo show in the gallery he began to be more of an international name.

True to his style, he represents Matisse in a traditional oil portrait, but with small interventions to impart a larger meaning to his subject. Perhaps commenting on Matisse's business abilities in New York, he has painted him in a relaxed posture typical of portraits of American businessmen, despite the fact that Matisse was more traditional in real life. Similarly, he has given his subject a flashy tie and bright socks, again giving the character in the portrait a different personality from the model in real life. He has essentially used the scene to generate a character, despite its model being a friend.

As this was given as a gift to Matisse (who later left it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, along with The Guitar Lesson - which was later returned to the gallery, unshown, perhaps due to its subject matter), it is possible that the subtle changes in his portrait of Matisse were meant as an inside joke between the painter and his dealer.

Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

1957

Girl at a Window

This later work of a younger woman is mellow in terms of its interpersonal intensity but nonetheless represents a psychological state more akin to the romantic sublime, while incorporating more of a landscape element, influenced by his relocations to the French countryside and Switzerland. Girl at a window (1957) features Frederique Tison, a young woman who modeled for him at the time.

In this softer and less tightly controlled approach to image-making with paint, even his brushstrokes seem to be influenced by rich atmosphere of the outdoor surroundings. The model - fully dressed - has her back to the viewer, but absent is the blatant sexuality of some of his earlier works. Instead, the young woman's innocence is insinuated more by the massive scale of the natural and interior elements in which she is immersed, as well as her attentive but essentially relaxed posture. While her arm size does not indicate that she is especially young, her figure nonetheless seems muniscule compared to the window at which she stands, and one wonders if her arms could even reach at the catches to open or close such a window. He has created a narrative and thematic intensity simply through his placement of subject and scene.

The flattening of the landscape outside the window also allows his portrait to hint at a vaster expanse of land that spreads far beyond the walls surrounding the property, extending the dwarfing scope of the world laid out in front of the girl, in this mid-century straddling a simultaneous portrayal of interior and exterior states while evoking youth on the edge of leaving a protective sanctuary.

Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Biography of Balthus

Childhood

Balthus (originally named Balthasar Klossowski) was born in Paris, France to an artistic family; his father was a prominent art historian and his mother was a painter. He was exposed at an early age to the arts and social scene in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, including his mentor (and his mother's lover) the celebrated poet Rainer Maria Rilke. His older brother Pierre was also a noted artist, author, philosopher and translator, whose own circle of acquaintances and influences included Georges Bataille. Bataille's interest in transgression - including ideas of sado-masochism studied in the work of the Marquis de Sade - would certainly have swirled around Balthus by way of his brother.

As a young boy, his drawings were published in his book Mitsou (1921), which included an introduction by Rilke. This started him off at an early age on a lifelong artistic career, and was also the beginnings of his use of cats in his work.

He became infatuated with Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) at a young age, and one of his first large projects was to create illustrations for it, including images of himself as Heathcliff. While the project was not commercially published, it did provide a theme that permeates his entire oeuvre. In his works he is essentially representing a reflective memory with a current desire. Both his own experiences as a child and his connection to the character of Heathcliff suffused the output of his career with both a mythic and simultaneously voyeuristic nature.

Early Training

Clearly his early exposure to creative energies both from his parents and through their social circles propelled him to an artistic career from a young age. He created art throughout his youth, while traveling overseas and when he served in the army in Morocco in the early 1930s.

After his military service, he began dedicating himself to developing his paintings in his Paris studio. During this time, he began to paint from young models, including his neighbor Therese, who is prominently featured in some of his early works.

As a central hub of modernism, Paris at its height was home to some of the artistic expressions that have shaped abstract contemporary art today, including Cubism. Balthus, however, retained his earlier classical influences and continued to work in a representational mode.

His first Paris exhibition was held in 1934, and he made his debut into the art world with a scandalous start. Perhaps his best-known (and most notorious) work is The Guitar Lesson (1934), one of his first paintings to use young girls to address serious themes.

He was friends with many in the Parisian cultural elite, and Picasso, Giacometti, Man Ray, and Breton were among his social group (although he was not fond of the latter). He designed sets for plays staged by Albert Camus and Antonin Artaud, and was generally well respected as an artist by these many notable peers.

At this time he was surrounded by Surrealist colleagues who sought to capture the subconscious in man through various forms of automatic and free expression. He strove to distance his own psychological state from interpretations of his work, preferring to cast it as a way to reflect the unconscious of others, including both his subjects and those who viewed them.

It is important to consider that, thematically, the portrayal of young children - and especially young girls - was in no way foreign to his contemporary artistic milieu. Despite the public outrage at The Guitar Lesson, its subject matter drew from the similar interests of other artistic creators by whom Balthus was surrounded. In particular, Man Ray's work with photo collage incorporated many seductive positions inhabited by prepubescent girls, while Rilke explored themes of child sexuality in his literary works. Artists Egon Schiele and Otto Dix also created explicitly sexual imagery of young girls, and Balthus would have been familiar with all these artists' work.

From the beginning of his work in painting and drawing, he infused each of his pieces with elements of care and respect for the figures depicted in them. While his young children may seem promiscuous, they are given the clarity and gravity previously reserved in portraiture for dignitaries and adults deemed more worthy. Unlike the treatments given his subjects' stiff predecessors, he imbues his subjects with an awareness of the world around them, and reflects a sense of their internal drives and passions.

In these pieces the desires of the children represented are embodied within an object or setting that the artist has placed as a "safe" enclosure for those desires. His dedication to and respect for his subjects is also apparent in the assiduous techniques with which he portrays them within formal compositions meticulously rendered.

Balthus's work as a set designer in the theater is crucial to the context of his life and creative career, as he essentially mastered from a young age the creation of characters and narratives through setting the physical scene for the tableaux in which they are ensconced (one critic referred to this aspect of the stiffly set scenes in his paintings as "button-pushing theatricality"). His father's own experience designing for theater in Berlin and Munich no doubt influenced his own early engagement in productions for ballet, opera and theater.

In 1937 he married Antoinette de Watteville, a long acquaintance and frequent model for his work, with whom he eventually had two sons. However, as the 1940s brought war and political disruption to Europe, he moved his family, first to the French countryside, and then to Switzerland, before returning to Paris in 1946 after the war was over.

Mature Period

Given his influential artistic social circle, it is no surprise that his work was included in a number of notable exhibitions around the world. In New York he was represented by the Pierre Matisse Gallery (run by the son of Henri), and in 1956 he had his first major museum solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. By this time, his tendency towards the eccentric had become well established.

In 1964 he moved to Rome, integrating with the cultural set there and befriending cultural legends such as Federico Fellini, while serving as director of the French Academy in Rome at Villa Medici. He moved again to Switzerland in 1977 and married his second wife - the Japanese artist Setsuko Ideta - with whom he had a son, who died at a very early age. Adding to the continual aura of the scandalous surrounding him was the fact that she was thirty-five years younger than Balthus when they married.

The mystique that endures around his life and career was in no doubt fostered by the artist himself, but it is clear that his eccentricities also contributed to his establishment in the art history canon. Scholars who have focused attention on his work have proposed that Balthus's eccentric life was actually essential to the idiosyncratic character of his work. While his work contained subject matter that many saw as erotic and borderline pornographic, Balthus barely if ever addressed these claims formally, which allowed him to be removed from the painting as seen by the viewer. While an audience may seek to uncover hidden intentions and meaning in artwork based on the artist's biography, he remained committed to maintaining distance between the artist and his paintings.

In 1968 a retrospective of his work was held at London's Tate Gallery, and in preparation the painter sent them the following telegram: NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.

The idea of having a retrospective without any biographical information may seem unusual, but it is a sign of his attempt to disengage conceptions of the artist from the artwork.

Both Balthus and his son addressed dismissively the notion that his work was erotic or pornographic. For Balthus, the voyeuristic intention seen by the viewer is one that reflects the viewer's unconscious drives, not the artist's. Therefore, if the work was seen as pornographic, it was the viewer not the artist who gave it this meaning.

Balthus's son wrote about his father, and was adamant that his father did not see his subjects as objects of sexual or erotic lust, but rather as muses in the sense of how real-life individuals have served as inspiring models for traditional master artists. He points to the many influences from his social circle as well as the great tradition of painting young women seen throughout art historical movements.

He continued to work until his death, but he led a more and more reclusive life with his wife. He died in 2001 in Switzerland.

The Legacy of Balthus

His melding of these more classical approaches to the 20th century's expansive possibilities as developed in Surrealism and Neo-expressionism showed the influence of his contemporaries and peers such as George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and Alberto Giacometti. His accomplishments in creating tableau that were both highly composed visually and heavily evocative of extreme psychological states, even while placed in banal settings, pre-figured theatrical framings and setups by later film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette based his 1985 film Hurlevent on work by Balthus, while François Truffaut's Domicile Conjugal (1970) features a prominent scene in which an arguing husband and wife contend over a drawing by Balthus.

Among those artists he influenced are painters of later generation figurative expressionism such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Currin, Alex Katz, and Will Barnet. The intimate and intense scenes depicted by Balthus have also been cited as an influence by photographer Duane Michaels. More contemporary homages to his work have been undertaken by Hisaji Hara and Julie Blackmon. His more implicit as well as explicit indicators of sexually charged and socially transgressive encounters further pointed the way to exploring such themes for the countless more radical artists willing and interested in taking up similar themes in his wake.

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Rachel Cohen

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Balthus Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rachel Cohen
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 07 Dec 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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