“Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.” This was the formula proposed by this reclusive artist for the catalogue of his 1968 retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London.
Whereas most artists are eager to have their lives and deeds discussed at length, Balthus (1908-2001) was a genius of obfuscation. Born Balthasar Klossowski, to a French-Polish family, of partly Jewish origins he created a genealogy to suit his aspirations. In his later years he lived in a grand chalet in Switzerland and went by the title of Le Comte de Rola, disavowing any Jewish connection. At other times he claimed to be descended from Lord Byron.
Balthus drew no distinction between life and art, being content to make up stories that suited his own fantasies. Nicholas Fox Weber, in a biography of 600 pages, identifies one charming lie after another in an uninterrupted procession.
It seems clear that the roots of this habit were laid in an unconventional childhood, spent travelling between Paris, Switzerland and Berlin. By the time Balthus was ten his artist mother, Baladine, had separated from her husband Erich Klossowski, painter and art historian. For years she pursued a passionate affair with the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who would become a surrogate parent to Balthus and his elder brother Pierre.
Rilke recognised the amazing talents of the Klossowski boys. He arranged for Pierre to become secretary to the writer, André Gide; and would write the text for a book of Balthus’s drawings, published when the artist was only 11 years old. That book, Mitsou, told the story of a stray cat the boy had found and lost, and the anguish he felt. The 40 original drawings have been located by curator, Sabine Rewald and are being exhibited for the first time, as part of a survey exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, called Balthus: Cats and Girls.
The drawings are naïve, but strongly reminiscent of the works of Belgian artist, Frans Masareel, which Balthus may have seen in his father’s library. In terms of compositional and narrative expertise they are prodigious. Already, at the age of 11 or 12, Balthus found himself being praised by figures such as Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis. His destiny was formed before he was out of short pants.
There is much about these formative years we will never know, because neither Balthus nor Pierre chose to talk at length about their eccentric childhood. Pierre would write studies of Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade; he penned erotic novels and made large drawings filled with sado-masochistic fantasies. Balthus would take a more oblique approach but his themes are just as unorthodox. One can only wonder about the formative influences in the Klossowski household.
Balthus remains the least known great painter of the twentieth century, but once seen his work is never forgotten. This is partly due to his manner of painting – a highly nuanced form of realism that owes more to Renaissance masters such as Piero della Francesca and Masaccio than to any of the innovations of the Modernist era. Yet it is his subject matter that has done more to establish his reputation and his notoriety.
Throughout his career Balthus invited viewers to attend to the formal values of his painting – to his refinements of colour and composition. This may be essential to any understanding of Balthus’s work, but it is his lifelong preoccupation with teenage girls that stops us in our tracks. It is an obsession that has bewitched part of his audience and alienated the rest. In a world that has become hypersensitive to any depiction of under-age sexuality, the Met knows that it is courting controversy with the survey exhibition, Balthus: Cats and Girls, which carries the teasing subtitle, Paintings and Provocations.
There is no doubt that Balthus aimed to shock and provoke his audience, at least in the beginning. He marked out this territory in 1934 when he was 26 years old in his first-ever solo exhibition, held with the Parisian dealer Pierre Loeb. Although the show attracted few reviews, and nothing was sold, it is hard to think of a more extraordinary debut.
The largest painting in that show, The Street (1933), is still considered by many to be Balthus’s masterpiece. According to the artist it is a faintly nostalgic view of a group of people going about their business in an ordinary Parisian street. Yet there is nothing ordinary about these figures, which have been quietly borrowed from sources as diverse as Piero’s Legend of the True Cross (1452-66) and John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. At the far left of the canvas a man appears to be groping a girl, who suffers his advances with a completely blank expression.
The Street is not in the Met show, which includes only 34 paintings plus works on paper, but it may be seen at the nearby Museum of Modern Art. The other masterpiece in that debut show was The Guitar Lesson (1934), which was confined to a back room, viewable upon request. The most confronting picture Balthus ever painted, it shows a middle-aged music teacher holding a pubescent student draped over her knee in the pose of a Pietà. The girl’s skirt has been pulled up to expose her genitals, while she in turn has clutched at her assailant’s dress, liberating a single breast.
This work is not included in the Met show either, being locked away in the private collection of a Greek shipping magnate. Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned in any discussion of Balthus, because it is the one picture that reveals unambiguously the violent sexual fantasy that seems to permeate so much of this work – a quality the artist has steadfastly disavowed.
It could be argued that nothing in Balthus’s work is quite as innocent as he claimed, even his cats. Cats and Girls begins with Balthus’s dashing self-portrait of 1935, inscribed H.M. The King of Cats, painted by Himself. Alongside is a portrait of an English friend, Sheila Pickering, presenting her with the title, “Princess of Cats”.
The feline theme harks back to Mitsou and a dream of lost childhood, but cats remained a ubiquitous presence in Balthus’s pictures. They grin like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat, while his teenage subjects sit with impassive expressions. Many writers have seen the cats as coded self-portraits – proud, fickle, aristocratic in bearing, both affectionate and predatory. For Balthus such interpretations were absurd. Cats are cats, just as paintings are paintings. It is the vice of art historians and critics to be always searching for hidden symbolism.
A series of paintings of Thérèse Blanchard, the ten-year –old daughter of his neighbours in Paris, allowed the young Balthus to escape from a depressing cycle of portrait commissions. By the standards of his earlier works these pictures were conservative, but the two largest pieces, Thérèse with Cat (1937) and Thérèse Dreaming (1938) both show the girl sitting back on a chair with one leg raised to expose her white knickers. Balthus would tell interviewers, years later, that this is simply the way young girls sit. As he grew more successful and respectable, any suggestion of voyeurism or impropriety would be met with scorn and amazement.
This pose was contradicted by the events in Balthus’s closely guarded private life. His first wife, Antoinette, was known for looking ten years younger than her real age. His second, Setsuko, was 35 years his junior.
Many of Balthus’s models would also be his lovers, including Laurence Bataille, the daughter of the writer, Georges Bataille, who features in Nude with Cat (1949), the wonderful small picture from the National Gallery of Victoria which is on loan to this show. Then there was Frédérique Tison, the step-daughter by marriage of his brother, Pierre. Frédérique would live with Balthus at Chaissy from 1954-61, and would feature as the model for most of his works during that period. Both these women were still in their teens when they took up with the artist.
Today it seems no less amazing that Balthus could deny his predilection for young girls than Liberace could sue people for claiming he was gay. We are far less willing to accept any mask of respectability, even if it means concentrating on the life often at the expense of the work. Balthus would have seen this as a deplorable modern habit and one may sympathise with his frustration.
These pictures of teenage girls would not be significant works of art if they were merely pornographic in intent or crudely made. It is Balthus’s uncanny mastery of Old Master techniques, and the way he subtly distorts the proportions of his subjects that give his paintings much their charge. If these pictures didn’t strike us as so powerfully real, in both appearances and psychology, it would be easier to reduce Balthus’s achievements to the status of a pathology. Whether we are enthralled or disturbed, these paintings are constant reminder that a great work of art is the universal antidote to the complacency of everyday life.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 16 November, 2013.