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Art: Poisoned Innocence, Surface Calm

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

At the Metropolitan, the problematic French painter Balthus

Two artists in our century have won worldwide fame by creating works whose best-known image is the child as sex object. One was the writer Vladimir Nabokov; the other is the painter Balthus. He is the antimodernist’s modernist. His retrospective at the Pompidou Center in Paris this past winter drew large crowds, and in a March auction in London, one of his paintings went for more than $1 million.

The Paris show, with some additions and substitutions, has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—without Balthus’s full blessing, it would seem, since he was offended by the number of facts about his life given by Art Historian Sabine Rewald in her catalogue. Balthus hates any biographical disclosures to be made: the Paris catalogue did not even give his date of birth. “Just say,” he told the art critic John Russell, who organized a Balthus retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1968, “that Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known.” However, enough of his work has been assembled at the Met to give ample grounds for judging a painter whose oeuvre has been fetishized and underrated to equally striking degrees.

There is, of course, no question which treatment he prefers. For 16 years Balthus was director of the French Academy at the Villa Medici in Rome: never a sinecure for the meek, and perhaps not since Ingres’s day held by a more indurated snob than Balthus. One can follow his appetite for grandeur as the name evolves: plain Balthasar Klossowski to start, then Balthasar de Klossowski, then Klossowski de Rola, and now, in his eighth decade, the “Comte de Rola.” The fact that he has been able to fend off inquiry about his origins for so long is a tribute to the alarm that this glacial, gifted and pretentious man inspires in the French. The ostensible aim of his facade is to fade away, like the Cheshire cat (Balthus is fond of cats), and leave only the work, like the grin, hanging in the air. But the real result, of which Balthus must be meticulously aware, is to create a myth about himself: the painter as romantic hero, a Byronic creature with a secret wound and obscurely exalted origins.

The facts of Balthus’s Me, as related by Rewald, are interesting but far from sensational. The big secret turns out merely to be that he is part Jewish. Balthus was born in , Paris in 1908 to East European emigre parents, s both artists. They raised him in a cultivated milieu that included the poet 1 Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom his mother was infatuated and who became a surrogate father to the boy after the Klossowskis separated.

Living in genteel poverty—”Russian pathos,” Rilke called it—Balthus and his mother limped from one exile to another: Berlin, Geneva, Berlin again, and finally, in 1924, back to Paris.

By then the 16-year-old boy, unsettled by the hand-to-mouth nature of his life and the anti-Semitism of the Berliners, was doing poorly at school. But with encouragement from his doting, tenacious mother and from Rilke, he had constructed an inner room, an astoundingly precocious life as a budding artist.

His formal art education began in Paris in the early ’20s. Balthus shied away from politico-aesthetic groups like the surrealists. After such a childhood, who needed the insecurities of the avantgarde? Instead he settled down to study the fathers: Poussin and Courbet in France and, supreme among the Italians, Piero della Francesca. The clarity and density of Piero’s figures, their presence as signs in geometrically ordered space—that was what impressed Balthus. He also made designs for the stage, which in turn influenced his painting. Theater-plus-Piero gave the cues to The Street, 1933, an exceedingly odd painting constructed like a Swiss watch.

We are in a banal Paris street, the Rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. Yet the scene is far from ordinary. The orthogonals and links between objects give it a tense, mathematical substructure with all manner of arcane rhymes: the triad, for instance, of the red ball on the ground, the globe over the door and the pompon on the boy’s cap. The cast of characters is mixed. The man in white might be a baker, or perhaps Christ carrying the lignum crucis; the two boys are Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the twins from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. It did not escape Balthus that Carroll had a thing about little girls: Tweedledum is molesting Alice. Most of the themes of Balthus’s mature work are announced in this strikingly precocious painting: the rigorous yet mysterious space, the haughtily erudite quotations from high art, the choice of sex object, the theatricalization of rape.

Throughout the ’30s and ’40s, densely academic images of slightly poisoned girlish innocence would become Balthus’s stock-in-trade. He did portraits too. His rendering of Andre Derain as a jowly menhir of flesh in a dressing gown is surely one of the great portraits of the century. But the schoolgirls were his preoccupation. Nobody could call them obscene; they have Art written all over them. Yet they have a great deal in common with the higher literary porn of the ’40s, in which writers like Georges Bataille or Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues wove faultless conservative embroidery on a disdainfully erotic vision. Balthus’s quintessential (and least seen) painting of that sort, The Guitar Lesson, is not in the show. But others, hardly less remarkable, are. Among them is The Room, 1952-54, whose teen-age girl sprawls in a posture of utter abandon, like a sunbather but in a dark room, while a malicious-looking dwarf yanks back the curtain to flood her body with light.

The side of Balthus not predicted by The Street was suggested, in 1937, by The Mountain. This enormous scene of young hikers in the Bernese Oberland holds so many references—from Courbet, Caspar David Friedrich and Poussin, for starters—that it approaches pastiche. It creaks with the ambition to be a masterpiece and is regularly taken for one, though its composition has the spottily grand look of an academic mistake. But the figure of Balthus’s blond wife, hands stretched above her head, rising from the dark plateau into the zone of early-morning sun, is a prime lyric invention; and the color has a resonant, hallucinated distinctness that brings early Mird to mind. Balthus would eventually paint some of the best landscapes of his time. The pick of them, perhaps, is Larchant, 1939, with its luminous sheet of sky and its mellow, precise inter-lockings of building, field and mound.

Not all Balthus’s landscapes achieve this unremitting gravity. When he tried to carry a picture more on quotation than on sight, he ended up with enameled parodies of Claude like Landscape ofChamprovent, 1941-43. The more he cast himself as the last conduit of classical prototypes, the stiffer and more self-satisfied his work be came, a decline most evident after he moved to the Villa Medici in 1961. The measured suppleness of Balthus’s paint surface now began to ossify, acquiring a thick, chalky, fresco-like appearance. It was meant to suggest the warmth and historical patina of old Roman walls, and so it did, but in a merely decorative way. “Pier rot della Francesca,” the gibe of one of Balthus’s contemporaries, hits the late paintings dead center.

Taste, decorum and an attitudinizing kind of augustness creep in to replace the former intensity, with the unforeseen result that Balthus seems more given to pastiche now than he was 40 years ago. In a painting like Japanese Figure with a Black Mirror, 1967-76, the way he quotes the artificial perspective of Edo prints looks almost complacent, despite the wit ty sense of sexual packaging conveyed by the white obi round the girl’s naked waist.

What Balthus now produces, most of the time, is salon art; and one longs for that vulpine sharpness, that coexistence of sur face calm and predatory desire, that made him the sometimes rather disagreeable poet he once was. — By Robert Hughes

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