Balthus and Obsession

When I read Vladimir’s Nabokok’s novel Lolita, I thought of Balthus as being the visual storyteller version of the literary giant’s work. I had forgotten that his brother was the erotic fiction writer Pierre Klossowski. Given Bathus’ several years as an artist in Rome, I now see a connection here with himself and Cy Twombly.

Vincent Johnson

Los Angeles.




 Pending connections


Knowledge Identifier: +Balthus


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Balthus was born in 1908 add something


In 1921 Mitsou, a book which included forty drawings by Balthus, was published. add something


In 1926 he visited Florence , copying frescos by Piero della Francesca, which inspired another early ambitious work by the young painter: the tempera wall paintings of the Protestant church of the Swiss village of Beatenberg. add something


From 1930 to 1932 he lived in Morocco, was drafted into the Moroccan infantry in Kenitra and Fes, worked as a secretary, and sketched his painting La Caserne. add something


Moving in 1933 into his first Paris studio at the Rue de Furstemberg and later another at the Cour de Rohan, Balthus showed no interest in modernist styles such as Cubism. add something

Guitar Lesson
Oil on canvas

In 1937 he married Antoinette de Watteville, who was from an old and influential aristocratic family from Bern . add something


In 1940, with the invasion of France by German forces, Balthus fled with his wife Antoinette to Savoy to a farm in Champrovent near Aix-les-Bains, where he began work on two major paintings: Landscape near Champrovent (1942–1945) and The Living Room. add something


In 1942, he escaped from Nazi France to Switzerland, first to Bern and in 1945 to Geneva, where he made friends with the publisher Albert Skira as well as the writer and member of the French Resistance, Andre Malraux. add something


Christopher Hope, born 1944, wrote a novel, “My Chocolate Redeemer” around a painting by Balthus, “The Golden Days” which is featured on the book jacket. add something


Balthus returned to France in 1946 and a year later traveled with Andre Masson to Southern France, meeting figures such as Picasso and Jacques Lacan, who eventually became a collector of his work. add something


In 1948, another friend, Albert Camus, asked him to design the sets and costumes for his play L’Etat de Siège. add something


With Adolphe Mouron Cassandre in 1950, Balthus designed stage decor for a production of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte in Aix-en-Provence . add something


Three years later he moved into the Chateau de Chassy in the Morvan, living with his niece Frederique Tison and finishing his large-scale masterpieces La Chambre (The Room 1952, possibly influenced by Pierre Klossowski‘s novels) and Le Passage du Commerce Saint-Andre. add something


Setsuko Klossowska de Rola – As a university student, she met the painter Balthus who was visiting Japan for the first time in 1962


Jesus Fuertes – In 1963 Fuertes left for Rome to receive the first place prize for his painting “Torneo Medieval” awarded by the Grand Prix de Rome for Painting and Sculpture, and it was in Italy that he developed a close friendship with Giorgio De Chirico, the renowned master painter of metaphysical art, with whom shortly after he exhibited his work along with notable constructivists and surrealists Balthus, Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carra in 1965


In 1964, he moved to Rome where he presided over the Villa de Medici as director of the French Academy in Rome, and made friends with the filmmaker Federico Fellini and the painter Renato Guttuso. add something


The photographers and friends Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martine_Franck (Cartier-Bresson’s wife), both portrayed the painter and his wife and their daughter Harumi in his Grand Chalet in Rossinière in 1999. add something


In 1977 he moved to Rossinière, Switzerland. add something

Setsuko Klossowska de Rola – In 1977, Setsuko and Balthus left the French Academy and moved to Le Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland


Le Bal des Debutantes – In 1993, there were 27 Debs from around Europe, including Harumi Klossowksi de Rola, daughter of the painter Balthus, who was dressed by Japanese haute couture designer Hanae Mori, as well as Laetizia Tarnowska, wearing Louis Feraud Haute Couture


His widow, Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, heads the Balthus Foundation established in 1998. add something


Setsuko Klossowska de Rola – At Sotheby’s in Zurich in 1999, a Balthus and Setsuko Klossowski de Rola exhibition was held entitled “Sotheby’s Kingdom of the Cats”


Balthus died in 2001 add something


The Cat in the Mirror - Balthus

The King of the Cats’

May 11, 2000

John Russell

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by Nicholas Fox Weber
Knopf, 644 pp., $40.00

Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works
by Virginie Monnier, by Jean Clair
Gallimard/Abrams, 576 pp., $225.00

Not very long ago, no English-language publisher would have wanted to consider a comprehensive survey of the life and work of a French painter known simply as Balthus. Balthus was widely regarded as an up-market near-pornographer who painted teenage young women in provocative attitudes and states that bordered on indecency.

Awfully sorry,” they would say, “but we couldn’t touch it.” On that note, the aspirant biographer was shown the door.

That was just fine with Balthus. He had a horror of being written about. When he made his American debut in New York in 1938 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, he said, “If there is any one thing that I hate more than anything else in the world, it is an exhibition preface.” The problem recurred when Balthus had a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the winter of 1956-1957. James Thrall Soby was in charge of the catalog. He was on record as believing that Balthus’s The Street, which he had lost no time in buying, was as great a landmark in the history of French painting as Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.

Soby was delightful company and very much persona grata at the Museum of Modern Art. He could not be prevented from writing for the catalog. “But,” Balthus wrote, “I beg him to leave out all the biographical details that are so much in fashion today. Ancestry, parentage, mode of life, etc.—all that seems to me completely superfluous. Just tell the public that I was born in Paris, and that I am forty-six years old. That should be quite enough.” (As a matter of fact he was going on forty-nine, but he thought that that, too, was nobody’s business.)

By 1968 Balthus had, if anything, hardened his position. When his exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London was all ready to go, he asked the organizer to remove all biographical matter from the catalog. “Just say,” he said, “that ‘Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us have a look at his paintings.”’

That sentence has often been referred to as if it were some kind of landmark, or even as a historic breakdown, in the artist/curator relationship. As the organizer in question, I never saw it in that light. This was Balthus’s big day in London, even if he never came to the show. His family history was his own business. If he preferred me to confine myself to what he generously described as my “always pertinent” comments on his work, I had no complaint. Matters of “ancestry, parentage, mode of life, etc.” could be left to an eventual biographer. But what eventual biographer? An “authorized life of Balthus” was a contradiction in terms.

That was back then. The big books on Balthus took forever to be researched, written, and published. After more than thirty years, two candidates have at last reached the bookstores. The first is a 644-page biography by an American cultural historian, Nicholas Fox Weber. Initially, and contrary to all expectation, this had been given a cordial go-ahead from Balthus himself.

Nicholas Fox Weber was quite unknown to Balthus when he called him from Connecticut, unannounced and out of the blue, and said that he wanted to write a book about him. Balthus himself answered the telephone. Where an unknown caller might normally have got a stylish equivalent of the bum’s rush, Weber sounded like what he is—a model of courtesy—and he was at once made welcome. (It may have helped that November is a very slow month in the part of Switzerland where Balthus lives.) Balthus wanted to talk only in English. He had had a Scottish nanny, he said, and English was his first language.

To be exact, Weber’s book is not “a biography” of the kind that trudges from week to week. The author remembers what Mark Twain once said—that “biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” What we get to read is the record of a blameless, one-sided, non-sexual love affair between biographer and artist which blossomed, cooled, and redeveloped with time into a lingering fascination. Much of it has also the character of a traditional conversazione in which people of every age and stripe pipe up and have their say. Weber made it his business to speak to everyone who might have something to say about Balthus.

Partly for this reason, his book has a curious, rambling, many-faceted quality. As he says, there is a moment in almost every biographer’s experience when he falls in love with his subject. In the initial phase of the Balthus/Weber conversations, this was almost bound to occur. Balthus made him welcome in a way that made Weber feel that he was already a friend from whom nothing would be kept back. He was encouraged to take notes even at mealtimes. No subject was taboo.

The friendship flourished, and in January 1991 Weber came back to Switzerland as a house guest of Balthus and his wife. Balthus and Weber talked, Weber tells us, “morning, noon, and night for ten days.” Note-taking was mandatory. It seemed, as Weber says, “an ideal situation.” The book thereafter is in part the story of how that ideal situation unraveled. There were some who said that Balthus was ultimately loyal to no one. It was also disconcerting to Weber that Balthus never hesitated to tamper with the facts if it would be to his advantage. Disappointment bordered on outrage. And yet, toward the end, Balthus reemerged as someone who was infinitely worth knowing.

Weber not only tried to meet everyone who might have something important to say about Balthus and his work, but traveled sometimes widely and sometimes almost next door, from Claus von Bülow in London to Linda Fairstein, the present chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, who was asked to comment on the condition of some of the bodies in Balthus’s paintings. Weber also reports that “the erudite and sharp-focused von Bülow proved to be among the most acute and original firsthand observers of Balthus I have ever encountered.” He mentions von Bülow’s speculation about the appeal for Balthus of his friendship with a Roman grandee: “a certain voyeurism—of both the prestigious family and the sexual prowess.”

But by the time Weber went to France, many key witnesses had died. Among them were Alberto Giacometti, of whom Balthus always spoke in a worshipful way, Albert Camus, with whom Balthus had worked in the theater, Paul Éluard, who had written a poem for him, and André Malraux, the architect of Balthus’s almost ambassadorial status in later life. But many others were still living, and not all of them would collaborate.

Balthus’s brother, Pierre, refused to see Weber (to think about his brother gave him migraines, he said). There is no sign that Balthus’s longtime favorites, Frédérique Tison and Laurence Bataille, were accessible. Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud had worked with him in the theater, as had many others, but they do not seem to have made any contribution to the book. The Paris of the 1990s was one that Balthus did not know (and would not have liked).

Other friends (and especially those who had sat for Balthus) were ready to talk. But the talk often slithered sideways into gossip. Was Balthus really the Comte de Rola, the Polish title on which he insisted? Many people get excited about that. It is a point on which many a friendship has been broken, and many another reinforced. I myself applaud the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who had often entertained Balthus at his house on the Place des États-Unis in Paris. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It gives him so much pleasure.” It has also been pointed out that no one seems to have laughed at Casanova when he chose a few letters from the alphabet, put them together, and said, “Now I am Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt!”

Balthus himself had told Pierre Matisse in 1956 that the Rola Klossowskis were an ancient Polish family, of which the male members had the rank of count. The Rola coat of arms had been created in 1044 on the occasion of a family marriage. In the 1950s, eighty families—none of them related—had the right to bear that coat of arms. Balthus once said that Rola meant “glebe”—church land—and Klossowski meant an ear of corn.

These meanings did not engage the interest of Balthus’s first wife, Antoinette de Watteville, from whom he had long been amicably separated. “Of course, it’s absolute nonsense,” she said to me over lunch at her house in Switzerland. “But we lived here, and it’s called Rolle. So why shouldn’t he be the Comte de Rola? It sounds just right.”

Gossip also fed on the question of whether or not Balthus had Jewish blood, and did not like to admit it. This was a more telling notion, in that his mother, born Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, was the daughter of a well-known and highly gifted cantor in Wroclaw (now Breslau). Since Nicholas Fox Weber also has Jewish forebears in Breslau, he saw no harm in saying to Balthus: here we are, two Jews from Breslau, sitting side by side in Switzerland. After a moment or two, Balthus said, “No, that is wrong, Mr. Weber.” “Behind his ‘it really doesn’t matter’ tone of voice,” Weber says, “there was an underlying vehemence.”

There was also the question of his mother. “Baladine,” as she was universally known, had been the mistress of Rainer Maria Rilke. Balthus had certainly witnessed the distress that the decline and end of this relationship had caused her. He had also endured poverty from 1921 to 1924 in Berlin. Rilke could have saved them both from that ordeal. To a friend, Rilke wrote, “I had a ghastly feeling that I was letting someone I loved fall into the abyss. That is what Berlin must mean to poor Balthus’s mother—for many reasons: a bottomless abyss, and one in which she will be continually pushed down deeper and deeper!” That said, Rilke closed to her the door of Muzot, the house she had put into shape for him in Switzerland, and went on with his “Duino Elegies,” undisturbed.

In later years, in Paris, Baladine did not lack for friends. She was well built and outgoing, with a broad, generous face and fine, full lips. People loved to go to her apartment on the rue Malebranche, where she was a source of irresistible animation. The French critic Jean Clair reminds us of a comment made in the 1920s by Jean Cassou, a lifelong connoisseur of the Parisian intellectual scene:

Baladine’s salon was the last headquarters of a society of true spirits. We spent some astonishing evenings in her studio…. There was a charge of cosmopolitan electricity in the air. There were Germans, side by side with delightful and mysterious Austrian women, and Rilke, of course, and Groethuysen and Charles du Bos, and Pierre-Jean Jouve, and Baladine’s two boys…

This was distinctly the honor roll of a certain Paris, with Baladine as its animatrix. But it was not a Paris that Balthus coveted.

Weber’s biography was followed closely by the long-awaited and monumental 576-page Balthus: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works by Virginie Monnier and Jean Clair. This documents and illustrates more than two thousand works, both large and small. Many were previously unknown. This majestic book has the words “with the authorization of Balthus” on the title page. This was to be expected since Jean Clair, the director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, has been writing on Balthus since 1966. He also organized in 1983 the major Balthus retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. His lengthy essay, “The Hundred-Year Sleep,” in the catalogue raisonné is rich in unfamiliar ideas, fished up from all over.

In the Picasso Museum Jean Clair has charge of Balthus’s The Blanchard Children (1937; see illustration on page 10), which Picasso bought in 1941 and bequeathed to the Louvre. This is how Jean Clair sees the painting:

[The two children] have just returned from school, a satchel has been thrown under the table and the boy has not yet taken time to undo his plaited leather belt or to remove his gray smock; his sister is already down on all fours, absorbed in a book and he, resting his chin on his hand, is already lost in his dreams. From floor to ceiling, all of space is theirs, and with it, the possession of time.

Reading, as portrayed in this picture, is neither a task nor a chore. It is what Clair calls “the weightless time of the free and agile soul, capable of elevation, like a free flight, in an absent-minded sort of reading, a floating, almost negligent attention which, because it merely brushes up against things, allows one to catch their scent without destroying what contains it.”

This is one of the relatively rare occasions on which Jean Clair and Nicholas Fox Weber are in complete accord. Weber says, among much else, that

Thérèse and Hubert have solid, earthly bodies; their poses make them seem even stronger. Thérèse stretches out her gangly, nubile frame and arches it mightily. She places her limbs as only a child might—flattening her lower leg, bending her foot, and twisting her arms in a way that tenses her body like a coiled spring. It looks unnatural, yet children are sometimes endowed with this flexibility. Thérèse’s hands offset one another across a void so that, in addition to supporting her, they impart a certain bounce—and help give her élan.

Balthus in late boyhood was so sensitive to that particular stage in life. When he was fourteen, Balthus said he would like to remain a child forever. It was in painting, for many years to come, that he could replay a period in life in which everything was beginning and nothing had as yet been degraded or dirtied.

The fearless and wholly defensible specificity of many of the images that resulted still gets Balthus into trouble. About such misunderstandings, he seems to say, this is what young people are like. They are dealing with what may well be the most important phase of their whole lives. They have their own ways of dealing with it. If painting is about truth, and not about received opinions, why should we begrudge them an inch of their underclothes, or even an occasional glimpse of their genitalia? They think nothing of such things. Who are we to pounce upon them?

Meanwhile, to pore over the catalogue raisonné is to realize anew the scope, the energy, and the constantly varying direction of Balthus’s ambitions. To include every single surviving scrap of his oeuvre is an act of candor from which most painters would emerge diminished. Balthus had his off days, like everyone else. But the cumulative effect is to keep the reader eager and alert throughout the 349 paintings, the 1,448 reproduced drawings, the eighty pages of drawings from sketchbooks, the forty drawings for the book called Mitsou (published when Balthus was only thirteen, with a preface in French by Rilke), and the forty-one drawings for Wuthering Heights (1933-1935).

Among the Parisian theatrical adventures that counted for much in their day were Balthus’s décors and costumes for an adaptation of Shelley’s The Cenci in 1935. Antonin Artaud both directed the production and played the principal role. Nineteen sketches for The Cenci are in the catalog, as are more than fifty-nine for a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Aix-en-Provence in 1950. As for his drawing of Puss in Boots—for the program of a ballet by Roland Petit—Balthus, the self-styled “King of the Cats,” was never in more genial form.

To have all this in one big book is the more valuable in that the greater part of Balthus’s output can now be seen only in ones and twos, and not often as easily as that. Fenced off behind the words “private collection,” they lead a reclusive life. The catalogue raisonné is particularly useful for that reason, although present owners are not often named.

But of course people don’t only want to see his work. Many would rather gossip about Balthus himself than unriddle a huge painting like The Mountain of 1937, which measures eight by twelve feet. In The Mountain a still-unspoiled Swiss upland scene is marvelously rendered. It is populated by Balthus himself, by his future wife, Antoinette de Watteville, and by a handful of their friends. As in amateur theatricals, and with an evident delight, they act out one version or another of the pleasure of being on pristine high ground on a perfect day. The Swiss village of Beatenberg, which Balthus knew so well, was not yet touched by the tourist industry.

It is to my eye a blissful image, and one that fits perfectly with some lines by Rilke: “We should think back often to the interminable afternoons of childhood, remembering a whole world lost and gone. Time passes. Why can those afternoons not return?”

The Mountain, with its profusion of play-acting, is the epitome of what Rilke had to say. But not everyone agrees. In his biography, Weber says of The Mountain that

the group assembled for a supposedly playful outing seem half dead. They are self-absorbed to the point of being totally out of reach. Forever fixed in a life that Balthus knew to be imperiled, they do not savor it easily.

(Readers who wish to form their own opinion about this redoubtable painting can find it through December 31 of this year in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Painters in Paris: 1895-1950.”)

Jean Clair and Virginie Monnier have for years been authorities on Balthus, about whom Jean Clair has had unique opportunities to acquire knowledge. Who but he might have known, for instance, of the letter (now in the Picasso Museum) that Balthus wrote to Picasso in October 1956. “I always think [of you],” he said, “with happiness and amazement, and a deep gratitude too that you should be there, you, the Great River of nourishing and exterminating fire, the Father of this century!”

Weber, for his part, traveled in Europe and in the United States to see as many as possible of Balthus’s paintings at first hand. This was not always easy, but he succeeded, for instance, in seeing The Guitar Lesson (1934; see illustration on page 8), one of Balthus’s more startling achievements, where many another eager pilgrim has failed. (The picture hung in the New York apartment of Stavros Niarchos. Weber was left alone to sit and look at it for as long as he liked.) As is widely known, it shows an older woman giving pleasure (or conceivably pain) to an adolescent young woman who is laid across her knees. Fingering is, after all, fundamental to every guitar lesson.

This left Weber with very mixed feelings. “The violation of a girl close in years to my own daughters was heinous,” he says. “But the effects of Balthus’s virtuosity had left me no room for escape.” After long scrutiny he decided that the torturer was actually a self-portrait of Balthus in drag.

In the book by Weber and the catalogue raisonné we have, on the one hand, a superabundance of hearsay and, on the other, every surviving scrap of Balthus’s output, ordered and annotated. Yet he remains a painter on whom the last word has yet to be said. Linda Fairstein, the Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor, gave Weber on many occasions the benefit of her specialized professional knowledge. When shown a photograph of the naked and apparently unconscious figure in Balthus’s La Victime (1937), she looked it over carefully and said, “She looks like a sex murder victim—exsanguinated,” i.e., drained of blood.

After 1959, when André Malraux became President de Gaulle’s minister for cultural affairs, and during the presidency of Georges Pompidou (1969-1974), Balthus took on a new rank in the officialdom of French culture. André Malraux wanted every big city in France to have new cultural centers that would be a lesson to the rest of the world. He wanted Paris to regain its old position as the place where foreign artists most wanted to live. He also wanted the hallowed but sometimes rather ramshackle institutions of French art, like the Villa Medici in Rome, to be reanimated.

In carrying out this grand design it was important to find a French painter who aroused curiosity and admiration in equal measure. There were many good painters in France, but only one who had retained in a supreme degree a fascination all his own. That painter was Balthus; Malraux had been acquainted with Balthus since 1945 and it soon became known that they were close friends. Balthus had an irresistible seductiveness, in which both mischief and an unfailing sense of social nuance had a part. The curious, snorting, half-strangled eloquence of Malraux played against the perfectly formed sentences of Balthus. The match, if there was a match, had two winners and no losers.

How to make the most of this? Balthus had somehow to be set up in grand style, with a distinctive status. Balthus always loved houses that came with their own history and a good name. He and his mother had been bone poor in Berlin and he had not forgotten it. When he lived for a while on the shores of Lake Geneva after World War II, it was not an accident that his address was the Villa Diodati, where Byron had once lived. He liked to say that he was in some way related to Byron.

Balthus could do much for France, simply by being around. He had the looks, the bearing, and the polyglot fluencies. No one ever forgot him. Nor did they forget his paintings. In every way he would make an ideal partner in one of Malraux’s schemes for a revived France. High functions amused him, and he has a great sense of history. In 1961, Malraux appointed Balthus as director of the Villa Medici, one of the most magnificent houses in Rome, its associations indisputably august. To be master of the Villa Medici had once been very grand, and it could be very grand again.

On arrival there, Balthus was appalled by the dowdy, slovenly, uncared-for, municipal look of many of its rooms. He soon put that right. He also revived the tradition of the Villa Medici as a place in which exhibitions of a high order could be offered to the public. As for himself, it was bliss for him to stop looking around for somewhere to live and to preside over a town house as fine as any in Europe.

Bliss of another kind resulted when Malraux sent Balthus to Japan on a mission in 1962. While there, he met Setsuko Ideta, whom he was to marry in 1967. She had lived happily with him at the Villa Medici and was the model from 1963 on of some of his greatest paintings, in which many years of work resulted in hallucinatory and still-cryptic images of his wife.

In 1977 Balthus left the Villa Medici and went to live, as he still does, in Switzerland. His name by then was giving off the kind of buzz that is irresistible to collectors who are confident they can outbid any rivals for Balthus’s works, which continue to puzzle them. And puzzles there are, in plenty. Balthus the painter and Balthus the man have never given up their secrets. But Jean Clair in his catalog essay has a quotation that may be apt. It was written by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in 1828:

A woman of twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years may have more evident attraits, she may be better armed to arouse and above all to feed a passion…. But in truth, a girl between the age of sixteen and eighteen has in her face, her movements, her gait, etc. a divine something which nothing can equal.

Thus might Balthus have spoken, a hundred and sixty years later.


December 29, 2002

‘Vanished Splendors’: Balthus and His Kingdom


The French painter Balthus, who died in February last year at 92, had an irresistible fascination, when he chose to exert it. He had seigniorial good looks of a kind now rarely met with. He was consistently debonair, though not disposed to waste his time. His conversation was at once high-souled and mischievous. Confidentiality seemed to be its essence. We felt that it was for our ears only, even if he had been saying the same things to other people for half a century.

With his multinational leanings — his sense of the high cultures of France, Italy, England and Switzerland — he was a throwback to a ”vieille Europe” as yet untouched by two world wars. To be with him was distinctly a privilege, and one that could last for a lifetime. (It could also be withdrawn, on the instant.)

Something of that privilege lingers in ”Vanished Splendors,” which is based on a two-year conversation between Balthus in his late 80’s and a French admirer, Alain Vircondelet, and benefits from the inclusion of telling and unfamiliar photographs. The book was published in France as ”Memoires de Balthus,” which was a considerable overstatement, given that the conversations were not structured but fragmented. Balthus was in no shape, and may never have even aimed, to dictate ”memoirs.”

At that time he had trouble walking and seeing, and his voice came as a whisper. ”Vanished Splendors” is a better title, even if many of the splendors that are discussed — among them Balthus’s own paintings — are still very much with us. But we sense, nonetheless, that he is feeling his way, word by word and for the last time, through the long story of his life.

The talks took place in his Grand Chalet in Rossiniere. It was often thought that Balthus liked very big houses because he hankered after ostentatious living. But this was not the case. What he liked was very big houses in which he could live almost alone and see no one. If the house was isolated, his happiness was complete.

This was the case with the Grand Chalet, which is situated way up above Lausanne. People had often assumed that Balthus was ideally happy as director of the French Academy’s Villa Medici in Rome, a post to which he had been appointed by Andre Malraux in 1961 when Malraux was France’s minister of culture. Balthus in Rome had quasi-ambassadorial status and lived in a great palazzo whose garden Velazquez had painted. In that same garden, Balthus had a studio of his own for some years, and he also enjoyed putting the great house back into good shape.

But Rome palled for him when the automobile got the better of its ancient unhurried ways. And although he had been a key figure in Paris in the 30’s, he didn’t fancy the era for which the new Pompidou Center was the symbol. (So vituperative was he on that subject that when he invited the novelist Marguerite Duras to stay at the Villa Medici they quarreled so fiercely that she walked out.)

After spending 16 years in Rome, he found the house in which he was to live and die. It fulfilled all his dreams, and those of Setsuko Ideta, the beautiful, intelligent and gifted young Japanese woman whom he had come to know, and to marry, in Italy. (Pierre Matisse, his dealer in New York, agreed to put up the purchase price for the house in return for a number of paintings, and in 1977 Balthus and his family moved in.)

Balthus prized the Grand Chalet for its ”dozens of rooms and hundred windows,” only a few of which he ever made use of. He loved the golden blond wood that covered every floor and creaked at every step. He liked to remark that Victor Hugo had stayed there when it was a country inn, and there were unconfirmed rumors about both Goethe and Voltaire. He had always liked houses with august associations; after World War II, he lived for some time in the the Villa Diodati, on Lake Geneva, where Byron had been an earlier and rather grumpy tenant.

”Vanished Splendors” confirms that what Balthus really wanted was to live simply in a very large house. Despite its enormous size, he wanted the Grand Chalet to have ”the charm of a farmer’s house.” And that is what he made of it. Servants were few but devoted. And since Balthus, when he was in Rome, had become ”a real specialist in home restoration,” the workforce was minimal.

Before long, the little train that clambered up from Lausanne on a rack railway also endeared itself to him. Not only did he prize the train as a time-keeper; he always intended to paint the Rossiniere station. It was, he said, like a childhood memory kept intact, but he never got around to painting it.

Among moments from his past, many in this book may be unfamiliar even to the enthusiast. It emerges, for instance, that everything that happened during his period of military service in Morocco had matured his work and given it its true meaning. His service with a cavalry unit, the Seventh Spahi Regiment, in Morocco from 1930 to 1932 led directly to his passion for Eugene Delacroix. He experienced at first hand and for weeks on end ”the jagged and fierce landscapes, brilliant light and savage colors” that Delacroix had experienced just 100 years earlier. To the end, Delacroix’s travel sketchbooks were among Balthus’s ”all-time preferred bedside reading.” And when Setsuko prepared his colors for him, Delacroix was her mentor.

In Balthus’s view, most of modern art was ”assembled by pseudo-intellectuals who neglected nature, and became blind to it.” He had been friendly with Mondrian, but never forgot the evening when he remarked about the ”twilight glow” and Mondrian simply pulled the blinds, saying that he didn’t want to see it any more.

Balthus detested surrealism, but he recognized Joan Miro’s ”playful nobility, his lightness, humor, and derision about the human condition. . . . He invented a lot, and in his figures and forms, an innocence, youth, and human truth come through.”

These memoirs were made for a French audience, and therefore have a legitimate bias. But it is only fair to Balthus to say that he had a lifelong, though selective, streak of Anglomania. He loved the language, the literature and the idiosyncratic ways of his English friends, some of whom had pioneered an enthusiasm for his work. He spoke well of the Rolling Stones when one of his sons was friendly with them. And on quite another level, his illustrations for ”Wuthering Heights,” though incomplete, have a terrible power. Passing through Rome, I once gave him a monumental new edition of Hogarth’s prints. I soon heard from Setsuko that he ”looked at them all day and never put them down.”

It is clear from this book that Rossiniere served Balthus well till the very end. After his funeral service in its tiny church, Setsuko and his children walked in all simplicity behind the Swiss country sleigh that bore his coffin to a plot of land that had been acquired the night before. We also learn that in the village church ”cardinals jostled one another.” That, too, was Balthus.

John Russell writes frequently about art and culture for The New York Times.


Balthus and Cats

 Balthus and Cats


Written by Alain Vircondelet

Pub Date: August 27, 2013 Format: Hardcover Publisher: Flammarion Trim Size: 7-1/2 x 9-1/2 US Price: $29.95 ISBN: 978-2-08-020160-7

About This Book

This album reveals Balthus’s fascination with felines and is a perfect complement to the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Balthus: Cats and Girls that opens in September 2013. Alain Vircondelet was a close friend of the late Balthus and originally wrote this text in intimate collaboration with the artist. He explains the symbolism within Balthus’s paintings and draws parallels between the sleepy, languishing forms of the girls and cats he painted. Balthus, who referred to himself as the Thirteenth King of Cats, regularly featured the feline form in his art, even as early as age nine, when he produced a story of his beloved Mitsou in forty Indian ink drawings. Balthus’s wife Setsuko and their daughter Harumi shared his deep affection for cats, and the family’s devotion becomes evident in this volume, which offers behind-the-scenes access into their home, featuring personal photographs, belongings, and reproductions of the artist’s cat paintings.

About the Author

Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, 1908–2001) is widely regarded as one of the most important figurative painters of the modern era. Alain Vircondelet has written numerous books, including biographies of Balthus and John Paul II (Flammarion, 2004), and the three-volume Venice (Flammarion, 2006).

Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations
September 2013–January 2014

The French painter Balthus (Baltazar Klossowski, 1908–2001) strove in his paintings for a classical order and refined aestheticism unrelated to both contemporary art and life. He is best known for his Parisian street scenes, his psychologically probing portraits, and his images of moody girls in closed rooms. He was a master of conveying the ambivalence that is part of adolescence. The children in his paintings are usually withdrawn, self-absorbed, and unsmiling. Cats are their sole playmates. The rare presence of adults enhances the remoteness of these adolescents.

This will be the first exhibition of the artist in this country in thirty years and the first devoted to this subject. Focusing on the finest works, it will be limited to approximately thirty-five paintings dating from the mid-1930s to the 1950s. Between 1936 and 1939, Balthus painted the celebrated series of portraits of Thérèse Blanchard, his young neighbor in Paris. Thérèse posed alone, with her cat, or with her brother Hubert. When Balthus lived in Switzerland during World War II, he replaced the forbidding austerity of his Paris studio with more colorful interiors in which different nymphets continue to daydream, read, or nap. The exhibition concludes with pictures that he created of Frédérique Tison, his favorite model at the Château de Chassy in the Morvan during the 1950s. Key lenders include the Musée Picasso, Tate Gallery, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and many private collectors.



(Balthasar Klossowski de Rola)
   Born in Paris, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, or Balthus, as he is known, was the brother of Pierre Klossowski. He learned to paint in the louvre and in italy, and his technique is similar to fresco, with a tempera base. His treatment of space is influenced by the italian primitives. He caused a sensation and became widely known in the 1930s for interior scenes depicting disturbing eroticism (Alice: la leçon de guitare). Inspired by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, he brought to his own work the atmosphere of the Gothic novel in his enigmatic portraits of young women shown in bleak surroundings. Always on the edge of artistic trends, Balthus painted landscapes in the same vein. His work, which later became more academic, is still based on the dual theme of a provocative and suggestive eroticism and monumentalism (La Rue, 1933; Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-André, 1952-53). Balthus served as the curator of the Villa Medici in Rome from 1961 to 1976.

The Art on His Sleeve

Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, Balthus' widow, in his old studio at Le Grand Chalet.Photographs by Katerina JebbCountess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, Balthus’s widow, in his old studio at Le Grand Chalet.

All artists have their talismans and rituals. For Balthus the talisman was the tablier he picked up at the American Hospital in Paris during World War II, which he wore religiously. Balthus always painted in the smock, using it like a cloth to wipe his brushes clean. It was never washed and, over 60 odd years, it accumulated layer upon layer of pigment, becoming an artwork in itself. The artist Katerina Jebb, who uses scanners and copy machines in her work, has scanned the front and back of the tablier in 12-by-16-inch fragments to create a life-size copy of it on paper that will be shown at the Balthus Chapel in the village of Rossinière, Switzerland from June 25, 2011 through May, 2012. Jebb’s high-definition scan captures every speck of paint on the sturdy, dark blue cotton — you can almost pick out the colors from Balthus’s surreally erotic “Guitar Lesson.”

The project, which she completed over a year and a half, also includes a film of the Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, Balthus’s widow, who tells the story of the smock and Balthus’s last day painting at home in his studio at Le Grand Chalet in Rossinière. “Balthus’s daughter Harumi invited me on holiday to Le Grand Chalet a few years ago with my children,” Jebb says. “That’s where I met her mother, Setsuko, and the first thing she said was that Balthus would have painted my daughter. And she did a drawing of her.” Setsuko and Harumi invited Jebb to document the smock for an exhibition by the Balthus Foundation with the condition that it not leave the chalet. So Jebb “dragged” her enormous scanner up the mountain an proceeded to copy the smock bit by bit and then painstakingly put all the pieces together.

A detail of Balthus' smock, scanend and reproduced by artist Katerina Jebb.A detail of Balthus’s smock, scanned and reproduced by the artist Katerina Jebb.

“Balthus’s studio is like the last bastion of luxury, if your definition of luxury is leaving a space intact, as if the person who inhabited it was still there, down to the last cigarette in the ashtray and the blankets strewn around,” Jebb says. “The smock holds 60 years of impregnated matter. The back is like a landscape painting where you can see where he has wiped off his brushes.” In the film, Setsuko recalls that she always knew not to knock on the studio door when Balthus was painting and what happened once when she did: “His eyes pierced me like arrows. For a moment I couldn’t move, or speak, and I realized he was looking at me as if I were one of his paintings. That’s when I really saw Balthus in his tablier.” Balthus counted his birthday only once every four years, and he chose to wear the smock on what turned out to be his last. “And he said, ‘When I’m wearing this tablier, I’m really me,’” Setsuko says. “So perhaps it’s his alter ego.



Ten days before his 93rd birthday, the painter Balthus (1908-2001) died in his Grand Chalet in Rossinière, situated by the railroad line from Gstaad to Montreux, but at the same time far away from tourism. He leaves a relatively small body of works which includes some 350 paintings and about 1600 drawings.

Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola was born in Paris in 1908 – doubts about his title as a “Count”, on which he insisted, remain. He was the second son of the Polish art historian and painter with noble ancestors, Erich Klossowski, whose study of Honoré Daumier (1908) remains a work of reference until today. Balthus’ mother was the painter Elizabeth Dorothea, called Baladine, maiden name Spiro, a Polish woman of the Jewish faith whose father was a cantor. Balthus’ older brother is the writer and painter Pierre Klossowski.

In Paris, the parents of Balthus led one of the leading salons, frequented by artists like Pierre Bonnard, Paul Valéry and André Gide. In 1914, the Klossowskis moved from Paris to Berlin – they also were German nationals. After the separation from her husband, Baladine settled in Switzerland, first in Bern, then in Geneva. Two years later, she met the writer Rainer Maria Rilke, whose lover she became. It was Rilke who named the young  Balthazar “Baltusz”.

In 1921, before he was 13, Balthazar’s Mitsous – Quarante images par Baltusz was published, with a preface by Rilke. It was the story of the cat Mitsou, which ran towards Balthus and later disappeared again.

In 1921, Baladine moved with her two sons to her brother’s in Berlin. Three years later, they traveled on to Paris again. In the French capital, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Denis advised Balthus to copy the paintings by Poussin at the Louvre – and that’s what he did.

In 1926, Balthus spent part of the summer in Italy. In Arezzo and Borgo San Sepolcro, he copied the frescos and panel paintings by Piero della Francesca and in Florence the frescos by Masaccio and Masolino. The following year, in Paris, Balthus created his first independent paintings and drawings with scenes of the street and views of the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Jean Cocteau’s novel Les enfants terribles (1929) is in its first chapters strongly inspired by the atmosphere Cocteau had experienced at the home of the Klossowkis. Balthus was also to recall the milieu later in his paintings: “Elegant, but warm. A little bit surreal.”

In 1930 and 1931, Balthus served in the French military in Morocco. In 1932, he returned to Paris, where he created his illustrations for Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. He also met Pierre Jean Jouve and André Derain. In 1933, he opened an atelier at Rue de Furstemberg 4, where he created his two versions of La Rue. The painting hangs today in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In his childhood, Balthus had learnt to read with the help of a German governess. Influenced from that period, figures of the Struwwelpeter emerged in his paintings. At the same time, La Rue reflected the life in Saint Germain des Prés. Balthus frequented the cafés Les deux Magots and Flore.

In 1933, Balthus also worked on the stage set of Fledermaus in a production by Max Rheinhardt at the Théâtre Pigalle and, in the following year, the Parisian Galérie Pierre showed the first individual exhibition dedicated to the works of Balthus.

1934 was the year of La Leçon de guitare, the painting which caused a scandal at its exhibition in 1977 at the gallery Pierre Matisse in New York. It shows a female teacher holding a child in a compromising position on her lap. Pierre Matisse gave the work to the Museum of Modern Art; whether as an act of provocation or not remains unclear. At first, La Leçon de guitare was banished into the depot. Four years later, under the pressure of a member of the museum’s board, Blanchette Rockefeller, it was returned to Matisse. Today, La Leçon de guitare belongs to the Niarchos’, the Greek family of shipowners. In later years, Balthus acknowledged that he had intended to shock the public in the 1930s with his work, which is not among his best. Balthus almost seemed to wish to eradicate it from his complete works because he prohibited its reproduction.

In 1935 drafted the stage set and the costumes for Antonin Artauds Cenci. In 1936, he moved into a new atelier in the Cour de Rohan. In 1937, he married the Swiss Antoinette de Watteville, whom he had known since his childhood. It was the year in which James Thrall Soby bought his painting La Rue. In 1938, the New York gallery Pierre Matisse organized its first Balthus exhibition.

In the 1930s, Balthus met Alberto Giacometti whom he later called his best friend and consulted on all artistic matters. He also had contact with Diego Giacometti. Balthus’ parents had been acquainted with the elder Giacomettis. Balthus traveled to the village of Stampa in the Swiss mountains where Alberto came from. At his Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Balthus possessed an Annette statute by Alberto (which can be seen on a photograph by Shinoyama).

In 1939, Balthus was conscripted into the military in the Alsace, but was released shortly afterwards. In 1940, he moved with Antoinette to Savoya, where he retreated in the estate of Champrovent near Aix-les-Bains. In 1941, Picasso bought Balthus’ painting Les Enfants Blanchard. In 1942/43, Balthus returned to Switzerland, first to Bern, then to Fribourg, where his son Stanislas was born. He exhibited at the gallery Moos in Geneva. In 1944, his son Thadée was born. In 1945, the family moved into the Villa Diodati in Cologny near Geneva. Balthus met André Malraux. In 1946, he returned to Paris, where he had an exhibition at the gallery Beaux-Arts.

In 1948, Balthus drafted the stage set and the costumes for Albert Camus’ L’Etat de Siège, in 1949 for Boris Kochno’s Le peintre et son modèle and in 1950 for Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the festival of Aix-en-Provence.

In 1953, Balthus, without means, settled at castle Chassy in Morvan where he drafted the stage set and the costumes for Ugo Betti’s Delitto all’isola delle capre. In 1954, the financial support by a circle of friends consisting of collectors and art dealers permitted him a certain living standard.

In 1956, Balthus exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1960, he drafted the stage set for Jean-Louis Barrault’s production of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar.

In 1961, André Malraux, who had become a minister in De Gaulle’s government, assigned him as director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome. Until 1976, under Balthus’ direction, the villa was restored, together with its park and the Palazzo Farnese to its original state. Invitations to the magnificent receptions at the Villa Medici were much sought-after.

In 1962, on a journey to Japan on a mission assigned by Malraux, Balthus met Setsuko Ideta, whom he married five years later. In 1968, their son Fumio was born, and died only two years later. In 1968, the Tate Gallery in London showed a Balthus retrospective. In 1973, his daughter Harumi (see the photo on the left) was born.

In 1977, Balthus left Rome and settled at the Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland, where he remained until his death. The Grand Chalet is an imposing four-storey building with over 100 windows constructed in 1754 by Jean David d’Henchoz, which had served as a hotel before Balthus’ arrival. For him, it became the ideal set on which he could live out his passion for charades, disguise and staging. By the way, the painter could only afford to buy the Chalet with the help of Pierre Matisse who advanced him a large sum. For its upkeep as well as his representative lifestyle, which included a butler from the Phillipines, Balthus generally had to continuously sell the paintings he had finished.

In 1980, at the Venice Biennale, 26 works of Balthus were exhibited. In 1983/84, the Musée national d’art moderne Centre George Pompidou in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Municipal Museum of Art in Kyoto dedicated retrospectives to the artist. In 1996, a retrospective at Madrid’s Centro de Arte Reina Sofia followed. In 1998, the University of Wroclaw (Breslau) bestowed an honorary doctorate on Balthus. In 2000, the Catalogue raisonné with Balthus’ complete works was published.

Among Balthus’ friends had been such famous contemporaries as Rilke, Picasso, Miró, Dalí, the Giacomettis, Braque and the film maker Federico Fellini. During his entire lifetime, Balthus had withstood all 20th century art currents such as Cubism and Surrealism. He remained faithful to figurative painting. Balthus considered himself an autodidact. Towards the end of his life, when his sight became worse, he moved away from portraiture towards landscape painting.

The opinions about Balthus body of work are divided. Most people consider him a singular person in the 20th century art world. Some add, not without reason, that a lot of his pictures are not so well crafted as his admirers pretend and that a lot of his works contain a strong dose of kitsch. Is Balthus the outstanding preserver of tradition or a mediocre painter who is only remarkable for sexual perversion and snobbery? Do his typical paintings of little girls testify to desires beyond the area of taboo or are they “untouchable archetypes of purity”? Balthus, who had staged his life, partly constructed his vita and surrounded himself with an aura of mystery, leaves art lovers and historians with a lot of riddles to solve.



Sex on His Mind

by Phyllis Tuchman

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 105 this year, 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.


Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art

Balthus — Time Suspended. Paintings and Drawings 1932 – 1960 Museum Ludwig, Cologne Bischofsgartenstr. 1 50667 Köln fon +49-(0) 221-221 24483 fax +49-(0) 221-221 24114 From 18 August to 4 November 2007 Museum Ludwig will be presenting the first-ever solo exhibition of the French painter Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 29.02.1908-18.02.2001) in Germany. On show will be around 70 outstanding paintings and drawings from the years 1932 to 1960, on loan from international public and private collections. Balthus was known throughout his life as something of an oddity and exception who stood apart from his own times. After a childhood in Paris, a series of moves necessitated by the First World War — first to Berlin and then Switzerland, followed by stays in France, North Africa and Italy — all contributed to his outsider status. His exceptional paintings, featuring motifs inspired no less by storybooks, fairy tales and the masters of the Renaissance than by a provocative eroticism, resist categorisation under any of the contemporary art movements. Balthus created his major works over the years from the 1930s to the 1960s while living in Paris and Chassy. The beginning of this period was marked by the scandal occasioned by his first exhibition in 1934 at Galerie Pierre in Paris. He presented a series of large canvases such as La Rue (The Street), La Leçon de guitare (The Guitar Lesson) or La Fenêtre (The Window), all depicting traditional motifs that are, as such, fairly innocuous. But the pointed eroticism in his paintings caused shock and consternation, just as Balthus had intended. Over the following decades Balthus portrayed his contemporaries, painted landscapes and streetscapes, and returned time and again to young girls on the threshold of adulthood. Although during this period abstract and surrealist painting was at its zenith, Balthus cast his figurative motifs in a “timeless realism”, as he termed it. The influence of the Italian Quattrocento and French classicism, as well as his adoption of the painting techniques of the old masters, gave him a singular position within the contemporary art scene. And yet his works were greatly admired by his contemporaries, such as Alberto Giacometti, Antonin Artaud, Paul Éluard and Albert Camus. Balthus had a number of ties to Germany through his friends and relations. His parents, who originated from Silesia (now in Poland) were German citizens, and at times the poet Rainer-Maria Rilke acted like a godfather to him. Yet despite this closeness to German culture, Balthus works are not to be found in any of the public collections in Germany, nor has he ever had a solo exhibition here. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with Dr. Sabine Rewald, a Balthus expert and curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and been made possible by generous loans from international private and public collections, not least the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris. The exhibition will be accompanied by the book Balthus — Time Suspended. Paintings and Drawings 1932 — 1960 by Sabine Rewald, with a text by Virginie Monnier, published by Museum Ludwig and Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2007.Museum Ludwig



Balthus Obsessed With Nymphets in White Panties: Review

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/Smithsonian Institute/Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation/Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg
“The Golden Days” (1944-46) by Balthus. Erotic ambiguities are developed in Balthus’s paintings of adolescence.

The self-assured 27-year-old painter towers over us. His hand rests on his cocked hip while an affectionate, fat tiger cat nuzzles his leg.


Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

“Therese Dreaming” (1938) by Balthus. The erotic oil on canvas is among 34 paintings in a show devoted to Balthus’s exploration of cats and girls. Source: Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg


Fondation Balthus/Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomb

“The King of Cats” (1935) by Balthus, part of “Balthus: Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations.” The exhibition opens Sept. 28 at the Met Museum. Source: Fondation Balthus/Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg


Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

“Girl at a Window” (1955) by Balthus. The modern annunciation is part of the Balthus show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, U.S. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

A photograph (c. 1990-2000), one of nearly 2,000 color Polaroids taken by Balthus. It is on view in “Balthus: The Last Studies,” the inaugural show at Gagosian Gallery’s new ground-floor space on Madison Avenue in New York, U.S. Source: ©Harumi Klossowska de Rola. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery via Bloomberg

Leaning next to the French artist is an inscribed stone tablet that declares him “The King of Cats.”

That he is. He’s also the king of girls — specifically, that mysterious realm known as adolescence.

The 1935 self-portrait welcomes you at the entrance to “Balthus: Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations,” which opened yesterday at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (Balthus) always wanted to remain a man of mystery. For his 1968 Tate retrospective, he sent this telegram: “No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards. B.”

The show, curated by Sabine Rewald, is less titillating than its title suggests. Held in Paris in 1934, Balthus’s first exhibition created a scandal.

One of its most daring masterpieces — sadly not on view at the Met — is “The Guitar Lesson,” depicting a prepubescent girl, nude from the waist down, splayed across a woman’s lap. Experienced fingers play with pleasure on the young body. Conflating sexual assault and Pieta, the work was originally exhibited behind a curtain.

Erotically Charged

The most erotically charged picture here is the Met’s beautifully suggestive “Therese Dreaming,” in which an introspective girl in a skirt sits with her knee up and legs apart, revealing white panties, while a cat sips milk from a saucer.

A close second is the Smithsonian’s “The Golden Days.” A nymphet with a mirror reclines on a chaise, exposing herself, while a kneeling man stokes a roaring fire. He is burning. She’s like a princess drifting downstream. The scene hums and purrs with romantic and sexual overtones.

Balthus said the pictures are spiritual, not erotic, and that “The Guitar Lesson” was his only flirtation with pornography. They strike me as traditional Venuses — deep explorations of the sacred and profane.

There are a few other masterpieces among the 34 paintings here — many of which are transitional pictures and feel more like strays than purebreds.

Nude Odalisque

“The Victim,” a nude odalisque floating on a cloud-like sheet, is ephemeral, disturbing, dreamy. The sublime meditation “Girl in Green and Red” imbues overt phallic symbolism with religious devotion.

The flattened, exotic and decorative interior surrounding a young woman in “The Cup of Coffee” is textured like tinted sand and merges still life, fresco and Persian carpet.

And “Girl at a Window,” a modern annunciation, floods the last gallery with crisp, springtime light.

But this exhibition, the first major Balthus show mounted in the U.S. in 30 years, is tame and half-hearted. It’s a misrepresentation of the artist’s oeuvre and of his chosen subject. It’s also a missed opportunity.

When Balthus died in 2001, he was the greatest living painter, producing strange and mysterious pictures that rival those of Piero, Courbet and Titian.

This exhibit’s curatorial coup is its complete set of 40 ink drawings the 11-year-old Balthus created for “Mitsou,” a book about a boy and a cat. Balthus’s earliest professional work, it includes an introduction by Rilke.

But “Mitsou” doesn’t make up for what’s blatantly absent. Abruptly ending in 1959, this show ignores the artist’s miraculous and enigmatic late paintings of the themes he explored until his last day at the easel.

“Balthus: Cats and Girls” is far less than the great artist deserves.

Gagosian Show

For some indication of what Balthus was doing later, Gagosian Gallery has mounted “Balthus: The Last Studies.” The show inaugurates Gagosian’s new ground-floor gallery on Madison Ave. and announces its representation of the Balthus estate.

Beginning about 1990, Balthus — his eyesight failing — drew with a Polaroid camera. He shot his young models, landscapes and paintings in process.

Almost 2,000 photographs exist. About 160, mostly of his last model, Anna, are here, along with a large “Unfinished painting” (2001).

Balthus’s intimate, magical Polaroids are fascinating records of his compositional thinking.

“Balthus: Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations,” opened Sept. 25 and runs through Jan. 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710;

“Balthus: The Last Studies” runs through Dec. 21 at Gagosian Gallery, 976 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-744-2313;


Balthus; French Artist Was Known for Paintings of Adolescent Girls



Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, the reclusive French painter and stage designer known by the single name, Balthus, died Sunday in the Swiss mountain village of Rossiniere. He was 92, although his birth on Feb. 29 during a leap year often led him to insist he was still just a teenager.

Balthus was among the last of the School of Paris painters who dominated Western art before World War II. Although portraits and landscapes were among his many subjects, his signature works focused on the sexual awakening of adolescent girls, who were often depicted in isolation in sparsely furnished rooms assuming poses that wavered between naive innocence and erotic suggestiveness.

Throughout Balthus’ long career, critics remained divided over these paintings. Do they represent a calculated sensationalism, built on an established Surrealist desire to shock bourgeois sensibilities? Or, are they a trenchant acknowledgment of psychological complexity formed in youth, appropriate to an age preoccupied with Freudian analysis of sexuality?

One who was convinced of Balthus’ significance and sincerity as an artist was his friend, Pablo Picasso, who once owned Balthus’ 1937 canvas “The Children” (now in the collection of the Louvre Museum). “Balthus is so much better than all these young artists who do nothing but copy me,” Picasso declared. “He is a real painter.”

The Klossowski family immigrated to France from East Prussia in the mid-19th century. Balthus’ father, Eric, was a minor artist loosely associated with the Impressionists, but he developed into an important critic and art historian whose monograph on the devastating French caricaturist Honore Daumier became a standard text. His mother, Elizabeth Spiro, went by the name Baladine and also had literary interests; she was an influential muse to the Austrian lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke. His brother, Pierre, became a painter and writer.

When the Parisian-born Balthus was 6, his family moved to Switzerland, living principally in Berne and Geneva but making extended excursions to England. His parents encouraged his youthful interests in drawing and painting, but the boy had no formal training in art. In a home where family friends and regular guests included such prominent writers and painters as Rilke, Andre Gide, Pierre Bonnard, Andre Derain and Edouard Vuillard, being an artist simply seemed an obvious path.

Balthus’ first published drawings were made when he was 11. He showed a series of sketches depicting his lost cat to Rilke, who decided to write an accompanying text and had the book published under the title, “Mitsou” (1921). The coupling of literary and artistic interests throughout Balthus’ childhood and adolescence certainly influenced his later commitment to figurative painting with narrative implications, which were seen by many critics, curators and collectors as being out of step with the most adventurous currents of Modern art.

In 1924, the 16-year-old Balthus returned to Paris with the intention of becoming an artist, but he rejected the common practice of enrolling in a painting academy. Instead, he learned by copying Old Master paintings in the Louvre, especially the classically inspired pictures of Poussin. Accompanied by Gide, he traveled to Italy, where he made a special study of the provincial Tuscan Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, whose importance to Balthus’ mature work is readily apparent. Piero’s use of a clear geometric framework leavened by a sensuous understanding of color, scale and pattern would become a linchpin for Balthus’ work.

Balthus’ first one-man show was held in Paris in 1934 at the Galerie Pierre, an important showcase for Surrealist art. His association with the gallery contributed to disputes over whether his frequently dreamy, memory-laden imagery was authentically Surrealist.

The show, however, was enthusiastically received by critic and playwright Antonin Artaud, whose own writing invoked abject principles of temptation and revulsion excluded in daily life and culture. The most famous picture from the exhibition is “The Street,” now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The large canvas shows a variety of figures who seem momentarily suspended in time while passing through an ordinary Parisian street, not unlike the Cour de Rohan near the Odeon, where Balthus found a studio. The central figure of a worker is shown carrying a plank of lumber on his shoulder, which enigmatically obliterates his face. A boy to his right seems to be marching in a trance, like a mechanical doll. At left, a young girl struggles against the apparently unwelcome advances of a Peter Lorre-like man. (The 1931 German film “M,” in which Lorre played a psychopathic child-murderer, had created a sensation.)

Artaud praised the painting’s formal composition and evocation of unfathomable, sphinx-like figures. Albert Camus later described looking at “The Street” as being like “gazing through glass at people petrified by some kind of enchantment, not forever, but for a split second, after which they will resume their movements.”

The following year, Balthus exhibited a group of overtly erotic paintings, in which the subject of adolescent and pubescent girls was prominent. He continued to work with the subject for many years.

Through his friendship with Artaud, Balthus also became interested in designing theatrical stage sets, culminating in 1950 with a well-received production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” He also began a series of portraits in the late 1930s, the most notable being portraits of fellow painters Andre Derain and Joan Miro.

In 1961, French minister of culture Andre Malraux appointed Balthus director of the French Academy in Rome, where he remained until his retirement in 1977. During his tenure, he renovated and restored the Villa Medici, where the academy is housed, and its elaborate gardens. He also traveled in Japan, where a young woman named Setsuko Ideta became first his model and later his second wife. Stanislas and Thadee, his two grown sons by Antoinette de Watteville, whom he had married in 1937, were joined in 1973 by a daughter, Harumi.

Balthus’ production slowed to a crawl during his years in Rome, and after his retirement he lived mainly in seclusion in Switzerland.

Balthus showed periodically at New York’s Pierre Matisse Gallery. His work was the subject of a 1956 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and solo shows were held at London’s Tate Gallery (1968), Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou (1983) and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (1984). A survey of more than 60 drawings was mounted at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica in 1999.

Los Angeles Times Articles




© Martine Franck/Magnum Photos; The King of Cats, 1935 © Balthus

TABLEAUX VIVANT | From left: Balthus and his cat Mitsou at home in 1999; The King of Cats, 1935

This September, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hangs some 35 of the most accomplished paintings by the late Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, it will be the first time in 30 years that the French artist’s work has been exhibited by an American institution. Concentrating on canvases spanning the mid-1930s to the ’50s, the show, running through mid-January, will offer a captivating series of portraits of three of Balthus’s favorite models: his nymphet niece, Frédérique Tison; his adolescent neighbor, Thérèse Blanchard; and Mitsou, his cat. In fact, the feline will have his own section of the aptly titled “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations,” featuring the youthful ink drawings that comprised his 1921 book, Mitsou, published by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “We always had cats in the house,” recalls Balthus’s daughter, Harumi Klossowska de Rola, who took time from current projects, including designing jewelry for the Swiss house of Chopard, to reminisce here about her father and his artistic proclivities. “I gave him his last cat,” she says of Balthus, who died in 2001, at age 92. “It was also called Mitsou, after the original Mitsou.”

Therese, 1938, Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987; © Henri Cartier Bresson/Magnum Photos; Girl at the Window, 1955, Private Collection © Balthus

GIRL INTERPRETED | From left: Balthus’s painting Thérèse, 1938; a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson of Balthus at home with Harumi, then in her late teens, in 1990; Young Girl at the Window, 1955

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“Painting was almost like a prayer for my father. Before he began a painting, he prayed to get rid of his ego and to become only a mediator between the painting and the universe. His studio was across from the main house, in what used to be a barn. If he didn’t go to his studio it was because he was sick—that was the only reason. Otherwise it was every day from 9 to 5, even lunch was in the studio. He would come home at teatime, which was something he always maintained. It was important for him to have everything a certain way. It was like a ritual.

“My whole childhood I listened to my parents speaking about colors and about paintings—all the Italians and the Italian frescoes my father really admired. [Harumi’s mother is the Japanese painter Setsuko Ideta, Balthus’s second wife.] We had great conversations about books that I was reading or cartoons that he would see with me. Our library was full of books. Some of them were almost broken because my father looked at them so much, and when I saw that, it made complete sense—all his work and all his research.

“But for the most part, I just saw him as my father—not an artist. The notion of him as a painter came much later in my life. It took me time to understand his painting because we never really spoke about it. My father was not someone who would explain anything. It was up to people to really discover his work. I remember as a little girl I saw a painting of his, and I thought it was so strange how my father had painted it, that it was so flat. And my father never answered me; he just laughed.




October 2013

Balthus’s Last Muse

Balthus is always good for some crowds and controversy, as a big Metropolitan Museum show opening this month will likely prove. But, Ingrid Sischy writes, a concurrent exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery—featuring Balthus’s previously unseen Polaroids of the young girl who served as his last model—reveals a more intimate, human, and even poignant side of the self-mythologizing artist.

© BenoÎt Peverelli/the Gagosian Gallery.

FINAL STROKES An unfinished painting, left behind by Balthus, who died in 2001. Photographed at his home studio, in Rossinière, Switzerland.

With New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art about to open “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations,” focusing on the artist’s work from the mid-1930s to the 1950s, one can already hear the crowds purring about his Alice-in-Wonderland-type paintings. Folks who think contemporary art is the emperor’s new clothes will once again breathe a sigh of relief: “Whew! A real painter!” The shrinks will have a field day: “What’s with the fixation on pubescent girls?” The feminists—please God, there are some left—will weigh in, and maybe the moralists too.

Balthus, who died in 2001, liked to stay above the fray, never embracing the isms that absorbed so many of his contemporaries. Born Balthasar Klossowski, he cultivated an air of mystery and myth, secluding himself in old-world country houses and castles in France, Italy, and Switzerland and inventing a life (and an aristocratic lineage or two) where the discipline of work was the order of the day. “Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known,” he’d say.

But secrets have a way of busting through. Timed to coincide with the Met show, a polar-opposite exhibition will debut at the Gagosian Gallery in New York—one as intimate as the Met’s is grand, comprising a selection of previously unseen Polaroids that Balthus shot in the 1990s of the model for his last works, at his legendary “Grand Chalet” in La Rossinière, Switzerland. The show leads us right into the heart of Balthus’s process, and also of his humanity. It will include at least one of his final, unfinished paintings for which the Polaroids were made. An accompanying two-book work will be published by Steidl.

© Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos.

ANNA’S WORLD Balthus and Anna, 1995.

Even though Balthus stuck to his routine of a full day’s work right up to the end, it became physically difficult for him to draw. Previously he had made hundreds of drawings as preparatory studies for his canvases; now he turned to the Polaroid. Anna Wahli, the youngest daughter of Balthus’s doctor, was drafted to be the model. Eight years old when she started sitting for him, she writes in an essay in the Steidl book that she was told Balthus chose her because he liked the sound of her humming Mozart. Across nearly nine years, she would show up Wednesday afternoons to pose. She remembers Balthus as being a bit of a klutz with the camera; sometimes she’d have to step in and turn it right side up.

Balthus’s widow, Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, and his daughter, Harumi, have kept a lid on the photos for more than a decade, and they would not have gone ahead with the show without Anna’s permission. (Today she’s a psychotherapist and social worker, and it’s difficult to resist wondering if her sittings with Balthus led to her choice of profession.) The backing of all three women is important because of the content of the photos. Anna is dressed in either a tartan or a white dress when she is younger, typically posing in an armchair, but as time goes on she moves to a chaise longue and wears a brocade robe that sometimes falls open, so she’s partially nude. These images are raw, and true, and risk being fodder for the censors who seem to rear their heads whenever children appear nude in art photographs, even when there is absolutely nothing dodgy going on.

Not that it’s inappropriate to be super-sensitive to whether these images are exploitative. Balthus’s most famous paintings often come with a purposeful sexual undercurrent, and Anna was just a child. The Polaroids have many moods: beautiful, awkwardly acrobatic, creepy, heartbreaking, luminous, timeless. They also document a meticulous artist’s obsession with capturing exactly what he was after—say the position of an arm, the way a leg might stretch, the mood created by just a shaft of light. There is probably no better record of how Balthus worked.

More important, the pictures are a testament to what this unlikely duo shared—the famous “genius” with his glory days behind him, and the local kid with all her dreams ahead of her, both of them aware that their collaboration mattered in some unknowable way. Confession: I’ve always been put off by what I saw as the innate conservatism of Balthus’s work—the fact that everything is so controlled by the maestro. These Polaroids give witness to art, and life, as a much messier, much more democratic process, one in which the young girl is a bit of a boss, too. As such they are deeply touching, the reflection of an artist’s knowledge that time was running out for him. Balthus indicated how much he needed Anna by how much he’d light up when she’d arrive. “It may sound pretentious, but this is the feeling that he expressed so vividly, as if much depended on my presence,” she recalls in her text. My favorite story about the Polaroid sessions comes from his daughter, Harumi, who prepared dishes of sweets for Anna. Once a sitting was over, Harumi remembers: “My father would watch this terrible soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful, with her because Anna loved it.” What a perfect metaphor for art. What’s bold and beautiful to one person is a very different thing to another.

© Alvaro Canovas

Harumi serving afternoon tea to her parents at their home in Switzerland,1998.

“He would say very strong things about contemporary art—that he was the last real painter—and I think that was in reaction to the time we are living in now, which he considered limited. He thought you should know what’s been done before, to have respect for all masters, to know how to make your own colors, and he frequently complained that nowadays people don’t really learn the tradition. He also complained that there was too much ego, that it was not about what you make with work but more about who you are.

“There are a lot of things that he was wonderful and open-minded about, and that was always what touched me about him—he was not judgmental but really loved people in general. He had many conversations when he was crossing the street to go to the studio, conversations with the farmer who was always passing by. It was such a ritual for my father—and also for the farmer.”

—Text and interview excerpt by Robert Murphy

Read more:


© Martine Franck/Magnum Photos; The King of Cats, 1935 © Balthus

TABLEAUX VIVANT | From left: Balthus and his cat Mitsou at home in 1999; The King of Cats, 1935

This September, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hangs some 35 of the most accomplished paintings by the late Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, it will be the first time in 30 years that the French artist’s work has been exhibited by an American institution. Concentrating on canvases spanning the mid-1930s to the ’50s, the show, running through mid-January, will offer a captivating series of portraits of three of Balthus’s favorite models: his nymphet niece, Frédérique Tison; his adolescent neighbor, Thérèse Blanchard; and Mitsou, his cat. In fact, the feline will have his own section of the aptly titled “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations,” featuring the youthful ink drawings that comprised his 1921 book, Mitsou, published by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “We always had cats in the house,” recalls Balthus’s daughter, Harumi Klossowska de Rola, who took time from current projects, including designing jewelry for the Swiss house of Chopard, to reminisce here about her father and his artistic proclivities. “I gave him his last cat,” she says of Balthus, who died in 2001, at age 92. “It was also called Mitsou, after the original Mitsou.”

Therese, 1938, Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987; © Henri Cartier Bresson/Magnum Photos; Girl at the Window, 1955, Private Collection © Balthus

GIRL INTERPRETED | From left: Balthus’s painting Thérèse, 1938; a photograph taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson of Balthus at home with Harumi, then in her late teens, in 1990; Young Girl at the Window, 1955

“Painting was almost like a prayer for my father. Before he began a painting, he prayed to get rid of his ego and to become only a mediator between the painting and the universe. His studio was across from the main house, in what used to be a barn. If he didn’t go to his studio it was because he was sick—that was the only reason. Otherwise it was every day from 9 to 5, even lunch was in the studio. He would come home at teatime, which was something he always maintained. It was important for him to have everything a certain way. It was like a ritual.

“My whole childhood I listened to my parents speaking about colors and about paintings—all the Italians and the Italian frescoes my father really admired. [Harumi’s mother is the Japanese painter Setsuko Ideta, Balthus’s second wife.] We had great conversations about books that I was reading or cartoons that he would see with me. Our library was full of books. Some of them were almost broken because my father looked at them so much, and when I saw that, it made complete sense—all his work and all his research.

“But for the most part, I just saw him as my father—not an artist. The notion of him as a painter came much later in my life. It took me time to understand his painting because we never really spoke about it. My father was not someone who would explain anything. It was up to people to really discover his work. I remember as a little girl I saw a painting of his, and I thought it was so strange how my father had painted it, that it was so flat. And my father never answered me; he just laughed.

© Alvaro Canovas

Harumi serving afternoon tea to her parents at their home in Switzerland,1998.

“He would say very strong things about contemporary art—that he was the last real painter—and I think that was in reaction to the time we are living in now, which he considered limited. He thought you should know what’s been done before, to have respect for all masters, to know how to make your own colors, and he frequently complained that nowadays people don’t really learn the tradition. He also complained that there was too much ego, that it was not about what you make with work but more about who you are.

“There are a lot of things that he was wonderful and open-minded about, and that was always what touched me about him—he was not judgmental but really loved people in general. He had many conversations when he was crossing the street to go to the studio, conversations with the farmer who was always passing by. It was such a ritual for my father—and also for the farmer.”

—Text and interview excerpt by Robert Murphy

Read more:

Great works: Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-André, 1952-4, by Balthus

Private collection

Here Balthus revisits a Paris street scene in St-Germain-des-Prés that would have been utterly familiar to him – he’d had a studio close by for years. He had painted a similar urbanscape almost two decades before he made this particular painting. And yet the mood here is utterly different.

There is here an atmosphere of disembodiment and even disengagement. Balthus is not so much seeing, as seeing through to an interior world of his own conjuring, which seems to run in parallel with the common world of everyday seeing, everyday memory. In that first painting, La Rue, he had familiarised us with a group of stylised individuals who, though oddly marionette-like, were still going about their daily lives of hurry and bustle. Everything was frenetic, teeming, interconnectedly clashing.

Not so here. This scene seems slowed down to the utmost. Although everything seems utterly familiar in its way – we feel that we almost recognise the rather springy step of that anonymous young man who strides away from us, brandishing his baguette – it also seems utterly unfamiliar, almost otherworldly. It possesses a patina of sightly grainy mistiness. The light looks altogether strange – grey edging off to a kind of queasy saffron. Is this a dreamscape or a cityscape?

The architecture has an air of unreality. It looks like a carefully fabricated simulacrum of itself, courtesy of cinecittà, not so much two bisecting streets as a filmset of two bisecting streets. Too many of the windows are either shuttered or closed off. We can accept shuttering, which is a very familiar sight on the streets of old Paris – perhaps they have not yet opened up for the day; it may, after all, be a little earlier than it looks, in spite of the fact that the street has enough people in attendance for us to regard it as mid-morning at the very earliest – but why are so many of these windows seemingly sealed and blanked off in this way, as if they were nothing but pretences of window spaces, nothing but architectural jokes?

And then there are the various human elements that populate the scene. I use that word with some care because I hesitate to call any of them fully realised human individuals, expect perhaps for the young man previously referred to who walks way from us, and whose face therefore is utterly unknowable. They are either less or slightly “other”. Surely they are all a little too small for a start? That man seated at the curb looks positively dwarf-like. They walk or posture as if they had once played a minor part in some devotional work by the likes of, say, Masaccio.

The child and the babe at the window, with those oddly rounded heads, might be part of some sacred conversation. Except that there is nothing at all sacred about this scene. It is utterly humdrum, utterly everyday. There is light-drifting (which stands in for walking), standing, sitting, and there is also a kind of odd posing – the girl who looks towards us, chin supported by her hand, possesses an oddly rapt and inward look that we could try to describe as, well… otherworldly rapture? Or some such. Certainly set apart, certainly not a lively and fully engaged participant in a Parisian street scene.

How odd it all is, all this wafting, inward-turned joylessness. The old woman with the stick, though seemingly in motion, seems strangely sculpturally arrested in her posture, as if she might eventually find herself in that pose forever. Or perhaps she is indeed a street sculpture of an old woman shopping in a Parisian street, a kind of Duane Hanson de ces jours.

About the artist: Balthus (1908-2001)

The Swiss-Polish painter pen-named Balthus was born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola in Switzerland. His father was an art historian and his mother a painter, and he grew up amongst the cultural elite of Paris. He always resisted any attempts on the part of galleries or newspapers to create a biographical profile, and when a retrospective of his work was shown at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1968, he sent a telegram that could be summarised in this way: This artist is one about whom nothing need be known. Please look at the paintings.


Issue 64 January-February 2002 RSS


Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy

imageCount Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, died in February 2001 at the age of 91. ‘Balthus, of course, was never a Surrealist’ are the words with which Jean Clair, the curator of the retrospective at the prestigious Palazzo Grassi, opens his introductory catalogue essay. Strictly speaking, one wants to add, Balthus was also never a Modernist. He rejected both Abstraction and Expressionism in favour of a style that draws heavily on the aesthetics of the fading frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Balthus steered clear of the avant-garde. Although his first exhibition in 1934 was staged at the Galerie Pierre, a bastion of Surrealism at the time, and in 1935 the Surrealist magazine Minotaure reproduced his drawings based on Wuthering Heights (1847), Balthus never mixed with the group around André Breton, but was friends with individuals such as Alberto Giacometti, Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille and Pablo Picasso.

This retrospective is presented as a paradox: in explanatory wall texts and a documentary video it is suggested that because Balthus’ work is the Modernist exception it must be quintessentially Modernist, the artist’s break with avant-garde consensus being perceived as a truly radical gesture. Balthus is thus portrayed as the archetypal mythic Modern artist, a heroic loner characterized by an air of mystery and mastery, aristocratic eccentricity and a professed hatred of the interpreters of his work. Photographs of Balthus with his angular face, slicked-back hair and cigarette elegantly dangling from his lips were on display, as if to authenticate this ideal of the solitary bohemian genius.
Fortunately this myth of mastery is dispelled by Balthus’ works – it is liberating to see lots of bad paintings among them. Especially some of the landscapes Balthus painted after leaving Paris for a château in the country are toe-curling owing to their awkward attempts to capture an ideal of classic beauty. After all, what you look for in Balthus is not mastery, but the indescribable weirdness generated by his myriad displacements of forbidden sexual fantasies. So despite attempts to display the breadth of Balthus’ oeuvre, the works that exemplify the artist’s strange fascination for the subtle perversity of the haute bourgeoisie were the main attraction in this show.
The Guitar Lesson (1934) depicts a female music teacher beating a young girl. The scene is staged in a bourgeois interior. The girl lies on the lap of the teacher like the corpse of Christ in a Pietà, her skirt hitched up to reveal her naked crotch. In defence, she tears at the blouse of her teacher and exposes her right breast. This moment of violence reoccurs in The Victim (1939-46), a painting of a naked sleeping girl. In the shadows beside her bed lies a long knife, like an invitation to murder. The youthful body is presented both as an ideal of innocent beauty and the object of a devastating envy. Like Lacan, Balthus suggests that idealization generates violence, that is, the wish to destroy what one wants to have, or be, but cannot attain.
This sense of impending catastrophe is tangible in most of Balthus’ paintings of this period. The artificial equilibrium of the bourgeois social order, represented by the static space Balthus borrowed from Renaissance painting, is constantly threatened with collapse: not only owing to the threat of violence, but also in regard to a breakdown of pictorial space. The figures in Balthus’ paintings are strangely flat. They always seem on the verge of ceasing to obey the laws of three-dimensionality by dropping out of the picture. This moment of potential transgression is symbolized by the reccurring figure of a cat, which often appears at the scene of an erotic encounter. The cat is allowed to look and even to touch. As its touch lacks violence, the cat can break the taboo without disturbing the symbolic order. So Balthus gives a clue to the riddle of his paintings: who knows the secret of sex? Perhaps the cats do. But they’re not telling.




Controversial painter of disquieting themes

Balthazar Klossowski, Count de Rola, better known as the artist Balthus, who has died aged 92, was arguably the last great figurative painter of the 20th century. He was also one of its most enigmatic and controversial.Self-invented and self-taught, Balthus created a private and poetic universe which revolved around a few obsessively repeated themes: landscapes full of foreboding, portraits which laid bare the inner lives of their sitters, and, most notoriously, his favourite subject – the bodies of pubescent girls.Some critics have dismissed these psychologically-charged tableaux – where young girls in various states of undress loll, dream and examine themselves in mirrors – as the prurient products of a peverted imagination; others see them as unique insights into the troubled territory of adolescence, and intimate studies of feminine reverie on a par vith Degas or Vermeer.Whatever the point of view, there is no disputing Balthus’s extraordinary ability to conjure up ominous frozen psycho-dramas with an almost unbearably erotic and emotional intensity. His own statements – such as “Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known” – only added to the mystery of his paintings and his persona; a desire to remain aloof and independent was crucial to every aspect of his existence.Art and exile were built into the family history. Balthus’s Polish father and Russian-Jewish mother had assumed German citizenship and settled in Paris, where the two sons, Pierre and Balthazar, were born. Both parents were artists and Balthus grew up surrounded by their friends, who included Bonnard and Matisse. When war broke out in 1914, the family became enemy aliens and settled in Geneva, where Balthus’s mother became romantically involved with another exile, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.Rilke immediately recognised her younger son as a prodigy when he saw a series of ink drawings commemo rating the boy’s angora cat, and was so astonished by their skill and sophistication that he wrote a preface and had them published in 1920. At the age of 13, Balthus, the artist, was born.Instead of attending art school, he bicycled to Arezzo to copy the Piero della Francescas. Throughout his career, the presence of the quattrocento masters remained a pervasive, albeit an unlikely one: whether in the monumental modelling of Balthus’s chunky young girls, with their aloof smiling faces, or in his later – and only partially successful – use of the chalky-textured “casein” tempera.These were spliced with a disparate range of influences, from Bonnard, Gustave Courbet and Seurat, to Poussin, John Tenniel and Wuthering Heights. One of Balthus’s early masterpieces is the disquieting 1933 painting, The Toilet Of Cathy.He may have been a loner and a non-joiner who stood apart from the artistic movements of his time, but this did not stop Balthus from winning the admiration of his contemporaries. His closest artist friend was the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, who shared his detachment from the outer world; one of the earliest Balthus paintings of adolescents, The Children (1937), was acquired by Picasso; while his portraits of a ferocious Derain, a childlike Miro and a boot-faced Vicomtesse de Noailles indicate an intimacy with uncomfortable areas of the sitters’ psyches that is be almost too revealing.Balthus’s first one-man show was held in Paris in 1934, but it was in America that his reputation was made – largely due to the efforts of the dealer Pierre Matisse and the pay-phone millionaire collector James Thrall Soby, who pushed for his first show in New York in 1956. His work broke the million-dollar barrier in 1984, the same year as his twin retrospectives in New York and Paris. In 1993, there was another retrospective in Lausanne, and in 1994 a major exhibition in Tokyo.In the early 1960s, Balthus was made special adviser to Andre Malreux, during his term as French minister of culture. Malreux made him the head of the Villa Medici, the French cultural centre in Rome, where Balthus lived until 1976.As his international reputation burgeoned, however, he moved to the village of Rossiniere near Gstaad, Switzerland, where he lived a secluded life in an 18th-century mansion with his Japanese wife of over 30 years, Setsko Ideta, and their daughter Harumi. (He also had two sons, Stanislaas and Thaddé, from his first marriage to Antoinette de Watteville).Although he shied away from publicity, Balthus allowed two major works to be published in tribute to him – Balthus: A Catalogue Raison Of The Complete Works, and Balthus, a biography by Nicholas Fox Webber. To celebrate his last birthday, he threw an extravagant fancy-dress party, attended by Tony Curtis, U2 and a last remaining member of the Russian dynasty, Nicholas Romanov.In spite of failing health, he painted every day in his studio.”I am always eager not to tire the canvas,” he once said. “So many painters today have found a trick. I have never been able to find one.” Perhaps that was his secret.Balthazar ‘Balthus’ Klossowski, Count de Rola, artist, born February 29 1908; died February 18 2001

Jan verwoert



I stumbled into a secret the other day. Or at least I think I did. I cannot be absolutely sure. I had gone to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to look at “Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris,” the first American retrospective in 20 years of an artist who was almost 90 when he died in 1931. I’ve always been mildly curious about Boldini, a specialist in chic portraiture with a sideline in avant-gardist attitudinizing, but the show was mostly sugarcoated bombast. Only one painting really held my attention: a small, early composition, The Lascaraky Sisters, with three girls seated on a couch in a comfortably overstuffed mid–nineteenth-century interior. It revealed, or so I suspect, a secret—not about Boldini but about another painter, Balthus, who died in 2001 at the age of 92, and for whom the nineteenth century was  phantasmagorical, paradisiacal, a parallel universe. For Balthus the nineteenth century was modernity’s doppelganger. In the early ’40s, Balthus was working on a couple of paintings in which a girl sleeps on a nineteenth-century rococo revival couch. And in front of that couch, exactly as in Boldini’s The Lascaraky Sisters, there is a nineteenth-century pedestal table, the top of which partly obscures the girl’s figure. This dark, thrusting tabletop, which was nothing but a compositional gambit in Boldini’s amusing conversation piece, becomes a phallic fantasy in Balthus’s exquisitely carpentered dream.

Was Balthus winking at Boldini? I think Balthus might have been amused by the idea of improving on this artist who was, like Balthus himself, a painter with a fashionable Parisian reputation. Balthus might even have been amused by the echo in their names. Am I making all this up? Am I weaving a Borgesian fantasy? Couldn’t it be that the similarity is accidental, albeit fortuitous, even uncanny? We know that, when Balthus painted two versions of The Living Room in the early ’40s, he was representing an actual sofa and table in the parlor of a house at Champrovent in the French Savoy. Maybe he just happened to paint a couch and a table that closely resembled the couch and the table in Boldini’s painting. I cannot say when Balthus would have seen The Lascaraky Sisters or a reproduction of the painting, although it was exhibited in the 1930s and became part of the collection of the Museo Boldini in Ferrara in 1934. But I find it hard to believe that Boldini’s little composition did not in some way precipitate the eroticized tabletops not only in The Living Room but also in later paintings by Balthus such as The Game of Patience and The Dream II. And there is more. The motif of three sisters in a room with a couch became a central theme in Balthus’s work of the 1960s. And couldn’t these paintings—which were based on studies of three sisters Balthus knew, the daughters of the dealer Pierre Colle–also have been, simultaneously, a meditation on The Lascaraky Sisters?

I doubt we will ever know, at least not for sure. Balthus wanted his thoughts to remain as elusive as the dreams of the young women in his paintings. Freedom, for Balthus, had everything to do with the slipperiness—the evanescence–of his meanings. So allow me the freedom to enrich my impressions of Balthus by regarding him, at least for a moment, from the vantage point of Boldini’s little painting. It would have been like Balthus to want to uncover the conceptual grandeur of what for Boldini was mere quotidian observation, making a modern metaphysics out of an earlier era’s novelistic chiaroscuro. Although Balthus would probably be as repelled as Nabokov was by any association with the man the Russian writer called the “Viennese quack,” there is a sense in which Balthus saw the artists of the past not in terms of formal associations but of psychological patterns. And so the dark tabletop, a striking spatial complication in Boldini, becomes a hard-on for Balthus. Certainly there are painters for whom a table is just a table. Balthus would probably have made just such a claim for his own tables. But when we look back to Boldini, we realize that his was the table that was merely a table, an object with a certain quotidian charm. When Balthus paints a table, it turns out to be the emblem of a table, the dream of a table, even the ideal of a table. What for Boldini was the thrust of the composition becomes for Balthus the thrust of the girl’s dream, an erotic revelation.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.




Balthus, the painter, who has died in Switzerland aged 92, may have been the last master of figurative art in the European tradition.


Photo: EPA

A reclusive, mythomanic soi-disant aristocrat, he was best known for his luminous if troubling paintings of adolescent girls. Replete with dreamy introspection and sexual readiness, his figures stare out of windows or stand on step-ladders in trees, gazing into the distance in an atmosphere loaded with erotic tension.

Such work brought him a reputation as an artist with an obsession with young girls. But Balthus made a show of appearing indifferent to this suggestion. “The interpretation of my work,” he held, “is in most cases complete misinterpretation.” His supporters claimed that the mood of elegy and hope in his most typical paintings portrayed something more subtle, a loss of innocence. Balthus, characteristically, was non-committal. “Everybody sees what he wants to see”, was all he would say.

His reticence extended to personal publicity of any kind. When pressed by the Tate Gallery in 1968 for biographical information for an exhibition catalogue, he cabled: “No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards, B.”


The Adoration or Perversity of Childhood in Balthus’s Paintings

The Adoration or Perversity of Childhood in Balthus’s Paintings.

Before the concept of Childhood began to take shape during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the concept of the Child had many symbolic connotations in the popular imagery through the history of art. In a general context, the child symbolizes the new beginning, as for example the New Year, or innocence, naivety and a precious gift. The symbolic meaning of child differed from one culture to the next. In Roman mythology the most famous child besides the traditional founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, was Cupid, the son and inseparable companion of the Goddess of love, Venus. In Christian iconography, especially in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, children were depicted mostly as flying putto,[1] besides the omnipresent child Jesus. In many other mythologies and rituals of the Near East, Mediterranean, Pre-Columbian, or India and China, the child was an object of offerings generated by barbarian beliefs. Only with the social evolution of societies, especially through the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the importance of elaborated attitude towards the children evolved to the rational social level.

The importance of child as a fundamental element of socio-political regeneration of societies began to be valorized in literature, sculpture, and painting. One of the best descriptions of the importance of the child comes from the William Wordsworth poem “My Heart Leaps Up” in the sentence: “The Child is the father of the Man.” Another great sentence: “The Man is like a river of Childhood,” written by Polish writer Stephan Zeromski, in his book titled “A Story of Sin.” [2] The different psychoanalytical aspects of childhood and adolescence, besides the literature, became more and more visualized in painting and sculpture. Many painters[3] were preoccupied by depiction of different states of childhood.

Balthus was one of the most intriguing painters who depicted mostly feminine childhood in his own particular way. Among other artists who had courage to paint the nude female children in quite provocative poses, as Felicien Rops, Egon Schiele, Otto Dix, or Edvard Munch, Balthus is one of the most mysterious artists. He made his name basically for the intriguing depiction of the female child models. Balthus imagery of young girls oscillates between the adoration and perversity of the childhood. By close dissection of the content of his selected paintings and the elements of their composition as well as the technical aspects of it, we might be able to conclude what generated to such large extend his interest to illustrate the young female bodies the way he did it.

Balthus, whose real name was Balthazar Kossowski de Rola, had Polish origins, but he was born in Paris in 1908. Both his parents were intellectuals and artists.[4] His attraction towards depiction of innocent perversity of the childish female models in their intimately provocative poses was influenced to some extent by the book of Emily Bronte[5] “Wuthering Heights.” Balthus illustrated the first part of the book not because he had a contract for it, but because he was overwhelmed with the story itself. He was especially interested in the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff, the two principal characters of Bronte’s novel. This particular story inspired majority of his artwork. Each of his paintings is fulfilled with a dose of mysterious sexuality of his models, which is present not only in the exquisite composition, but also in the way he applied the paint on it. Some of the Balthus paintings are still shocking to some viewers even today.

The most controversial of his works is the painting titled “The Guitar Lesson” (see fig.1) which was one of his first five works he exposed in the Gallery Pierre in Paris in 1934 during his first solo exposition. The painting scandalized the public and the French media showed no mercy. He was generally accused of being obsessed with sexual perversity. One of the strongest statements came from Gaston Poulin[6] who named the artist a fanatic nymphomaniac. Furthermore, he described his style as naïve and crude portraying Balthus as the cruelest painter than Goya and Rouault. This particular painting is rarely shown and at the present it is in the hands of a privet collector. Whenever it was exposed, even the first time, it was presented mostly in separate rooms covered with the curtains just for “special” public to see. For forty years Balthus did not wanted this painting to be exposed or printed because as he himself explained from fear of the public misunderstanding of his controversial piece. The close examination of this particular artwork might vaguely respond why would people be offended to such degree by this image. Certainly, it would not be exaggeration to say that this image represents the zenith of his provocative artistic perversity. Many artists are trying to surround themselves with the mist of mystery in order to attract the public interest in their creative efforts[7] and Balthus was a master of it. He never gives any explanation why he does what he does. That is why so much curiosity surrounds him. To criticize his artwork by the imagery would be too easy and unfortunately many critics do it. Before judging his paintings positively or negatively one needs to focus on deeper study of his artwork because in Balthus case each element of the image tells a story, understanding of which depends on how far we are prepared intellectually to dissect the hidden meanings. “The Guitar Lesson” depicts the moment of sadistic violence executed on the innocent female child by her guitar teacher. The child is lying on the teacher’s knees in the position of Pieta[8] suggesting the death Jesus reincarnated in the girl’s denuded figure. The naked body of the child is smoothly transferred symbolically into the erotic guitar on which the teacher is playing the sadistic notes of erotic education. It looks like the child is forced to play hesitantly with the partially denuded sensually erected breast of the teacher. Looking at the Balthus study sketches done for this painting, it becomes clear that he wanted to paint himself as a teacher but probably he realized that such scene would not be acceptable for any public display. It would be too personal and too revealing of his somehow overloaded with sexual fantasies mind. That is why he decided to replace himself with a woman. It probably appeared to Balthus safer to depict lesbian sodomy rather than to use the mixed genders. However, he could not refuse himself the pleasure to portray at least his face in the corps of the woman teacher. Comparing the teacher’s facial futures with the Heathcliff face from “The Cathy’s Toilet,” (see. fig.2) artwork where Balthus portrayed himself as a Heathcliff and his future wife[9] as a Cathy, the two principal characters of his favor book “Wuthering Heights,” the resemblance of the two faces is unquestionable. Furthermore, his sketches (see fig. 3) for the artwork clearly confirm that. The teacher’s right hand is squeezing the girl’s hair lock as the guitar neck and with her left hand she is pulling the imaginary strings in the child’s pubic area. The almost feinted girl gives impression of being entirely submitted to her teacher’s erotic game. Her face projects evident signs of the total subjection to the sadistic sexual sodomy of her innocence. The child’s right hand partly reposing on the floor is touching the guitar neck lying on the parquet forming a triangle suggesting the pubic area. The instrument noise hole is symbolizing the loss of innocence by the girl. The colors[10] of the child’s clothing are also symbols of the transition from the state of innocence to the state of impurity of experienced sexual pleasures. The vertical lines on the wallpaper suggest the cage of immorality to which each female child will eventually be subjected. The green color of the lines symbolizes the freshness of the girl’s femininity. The piano situated on the left side of the painting suggests much more elaborated erotic initiation in the near future when the girl would be a woman.[11] It is really fascinating artwork executed with simplicity and sincere adoration of innocent purity of the childish femininity. This painting is mentioned in many publications as a legendary probably because of its provocative content. Balthus will never again be so open to expose his explicit interiority to the exterior world. This artwork forces us to recognize that we all have a room for provocative drastic perversity and only by pure hypocritical social attitude some of us find paintings like this drastically shocking.

After his questionable experiences with “The Guitar Lesson” painting Balthus elaborated his provocative attitude by painting the adoration of childish femininity using rather poetic eroticism. The best example of such approach would be the artwork titled “Dreaming Therese” (see fig.4). It is beautifully painted canvas. The female child is presented as a dreaming girl. What her dreams might be about we can guess only by her provocatively astride legs exposing in evidence her white panties covering her genital area leaving the space for sensual imagination. Balthus plays with colors to symbolize the content of the picture. The panties are white as well as the half-slip suggesting the unspoiled yet purity. The red skirt surrounds the covered crotch suggesting the future fortress of sexual desires. The red slippers with the black pompons symbolize the approaching sexual enlightenment and the consequences of it. The green colors of the pillow, which make her comfortable, signify the feminine freshness, fertility, and the beauty of the female youth. In the front at the right low corner Balthus placed white cat[12] sipping milk from the white plate. Cat has very rich symbolic meanings but in reference to this picture it symbolizes a protection against demonic forces, perversity, independence, sexual potency, female pubic hairs and in some cultures vagina.[13] The fact that the white cat is licking the rounded white plate suggests the girl’s eroticism of the dreamed dreams. At the same time it suggests the imaginary consumption of the innocence and virginity of the pubescent female child. Balthus is the foreteller of the girl’s intimate future. In the further background he uses again the wallpaper stripes. This time they are red symbolizing again the cage of the future impurity and with the furniture, drapery and pots, the girls unavoidable households destiny. The provocative posture of the model Balthus would use many times in his other compositions. He knew that by such pose he would seduce the viewer’s erotic fantasist imaginary without the necessity to show a young innocent flesh. His mathematically calculated provocative creations would become the trademark of his artistic quest.

During the fifties and the beginning of sixties, Balthus adopted another seductive pose for the models of his sensual compositions. The painting titled “The Golden Age” (see fig.5) is the first from the series of many and as discovered by the scholar Jorg Zutter the first one ever exposed by Balthus in the museum.[14] The artwork shows a young girl stretched comfortably on a small sofa and she is preoccupied by looking at the reflection of herself in the white mirror, which she keeps in her left hand. The mirror symbolizes the world, life, femininity, love, and vanity. The pearl necklace on her neck refers to the virginity, health, perfection, and preciousness. The right hand hung down looks as it is suspended in the air. Her torso is partly uncovered suggesting a delicate touch of feminine coquetry. The girl’s legs are spread in provocative invitation of sexual curiosity. Together, the white slippers on her feet, the white mirror and the white pillow behind her head as well as the white bowl on the table completed with the white light projected from the window situated in the back symbolize the innocent purity of the young female beauty. The entire room is divided by the two sources of light. The white light coming from the window on the left is mixed with the red reflections projected by the chimney. Both these lights blend together exactly in the area of the girl’s spread legs suggesting the boundaries between the innocence and the sexual initiation. The sofa itself has a shape of the hiking shoe suggesting that the young beauty is on her way approaching the sexual fire of her first erotic experience. The man on the right is preparing the ground for her erotic enlightenment by warming up the room. On the left side of the chimney, a small statue with phallic forms is standing. Just beside the sculpture the log tongs are leaning against the chimney surface. The log tongs have the shape of female crotch as well as the form of infant what symbolize the process of future maternity. The chimney itself suggests the female sexual organs and the small in posture man working hard to keep the fire on representing symbolically the process of sexual intercourse. The man with his right hand covered with the white glow is touching the chimney that suggests clearly the act of defloration. The massive quantities of symbolic information, which is easily readable after close examination of all elements of the painting, refer to the passage of time from the childhood to the adolescence and the first encounter with sexuality. It is another great artwork opened to sensual discoveries. Balthus’s mind could be read through the imagery of his paintings. He is proposing the internal conversation and to hear it one needs to understand his symbolic alphabet. His paintings need to be decoded by the meaning of each element. It can take hours or days before one can complete the entire source of information he offers for intellectual digestion on the surfaces of his canvases. To some people his paintings look simple, primitive, or perverse, but only the ignorance can judge his artwork paranoid and obsessive. Balthus came from intelligent and intellectual family and he expressed himself with intelligence too.

Another of Balthus painting titled “The Patience” (see fig.6) reaffirms his genius of writing stories with symbolic images. This artwork is different from the others. Balthus tells the story of a female that is still a child waiting for her sexual enlightenment. The erotic curiosity is already implanted in her soul. She is placing the cards on the pink table trying to foresee when it would happen. The way she placed the cards suggests a window. It is situated between the shadows projected by the girl’s arms on the table suggesting the girl’s spread legs. The candle on the table refers to the phallus. Furthermore, the candle in the chandelier suggests the sexual intercourse. The girl stretched out her legs, one of which is using the support of the chair and the other is on the floor. The curved posture of her body is emphasized by the sensual provocative curve of her buttock. Her face and a part of her body are in the shadow suggesting her innocence and sexual ignorance. The part of the chair is entering between the legs of the table illustrating the process of sexual initiation. The cat under the shadow of the table symbolizes the inexperience of her sexual organs relates to her virginity. Furthermore, the scene of running cat trying to catch the ball suggests the foreplay before the act of the final seduction. The white wall behind with the horizontal division might suggest a bed.

While most of the time Balthus depicted denuded innocence of the childish girls one cannot consider his paintings in anyway as pornographic. The perversity of his images might be disturbing to some only when he painted the models naked with spread legs, this definitely emphasizes the suggestively provocative reading of the picture, as for example in his two chosen artworks for review: first titled “Elevation” (see fig.7) and second titled “Naked and the Guitar” (see fig.6). The “Elevation” was executed in the late eighties. In the square format of the canvas, Balthus painted a child girl touching with the tips of her fingers a toy bird, as she would like to help the bird to fly. Her connection with the toy bird suggests the desire to fly with her innocent mind to satisfy her erotic curiosity. The girl’s spread legs and the half sitting position on the bed with white pillow behind, and sheets, and blankets symbolizes the purity of the sitter waiting for a discoveries of the erotic pleasure. The hungry fixed eyes of the cat, which is coming out from the cage of sexual desires suggest clearly cat’s appetite to catch the bird. The cat might not realize that the bird-versus-girl is not comestible because of her young age. The cat is overwhelmed with the girl’s purity, which makes its appetite for her innocence even greater. The “Naked and the Guitar” was executed in the early nineties. In addition to the even more pronounced and provocative of the girl’s spread legs in this painting, Balthus placed just beside her a guitar as he did it previously in his other paintings. The guitars and cats are very often used in his compositions to emphasize the elaborated erotic content that has to be discovered. Balthus certainly knew that most people even the art critics would judge his artwork by the most evident imagery without seeing the entire story of his paintings. That is why he probably had a lot of fun when he was reading the critics of his works. The scene of this painting is situated in the closed room, probably somewhere in the south, as the window would suggest, maybe even in the Mediterranean. Just by suggesting the Mediterranean region through the window he refers to love and sexual freedom. The girl lying stretched comfortably on the bed marks the center of the painting with her pubic area very evidently saying all what the artwork is about. Her beautiful innocence is offered to the viewer to enjoy looking at her without even being interrupted. The triangle created between her legs, her pubic area and the white blanket refers to the ancient symbol of femininity and erotic poesy and music. The draperies hanged over on the right side of the bed have a form of monk clothing what would suggest the chastity. Furthermore, the violet color of the drapery symbolizes the innocence, virtues, love and beauty but also a short grief and the male genitals in the Indian culture. The composition of the violet drapery by itself is very suggestive. Taking in consideration the omnipresent symbolism in Balthus’s paintings, one has to recognize his artistic genius. Furthermore, each of his artworks has qualities of the sensual novel.

Most scholars recognized the particularity of the subjects of his artistic quest and also his artistic greatness and individuality, while others see rather just the obsessive pedophiliac character and mediocrity of it. His artwork is certainly controversial according to the contemporary social fragility towards such delicate issues as a depiction of the sexual innocence of the children, especially young girls.

However, by careful studies of Balthus works, one can certainly appreciate their thematic and artistic values. In order to have an understanding of his greatness, one needs to see at least one original artwork of his, because Balthus really painted his paintings. By close examination of the surfaces of his canvases one can see his enormous physical effort to produce the three dimensional chromatic coatings. From far away it seems as it is just a flat application of few colors participating in visualization of his images but from a close range by tracing his brush movements, one can feel the excitement he went through in order to get the results he wanted to get. It would not be exaggeration to tell that he struggled with the canvas as he was fighting to exteriorize his adoration and his creative excitement, which was supplied to his mind by the beautiful, fulfilled with innocence childish femininities of the posing models. His seemingly simple paintings have extremely complex exterior chromatic superficies. Whatever excitement he accumulated in his creative mind he throws it out in the chunks of paint with multiple chromatic strokes of his brush. The surface of his canvases besides the figurative content consists of the orgy of the colors applied with the painter’s erotic energy constantly nourished with the adoration of the visual references. The artist devoured the beauty of the innocent bodies with the paint and his brush, and as it can be seen on the surface of his canvases he enjoyed every inch of doing it. Balthus qualities as a painter do not exclude a question, if his artwork is about admiration or perversity of the female childhood. Answer to this question lies somewhere between the two groups of Contemporary society: the paranoid conservative hypocritical part and the mentally healthy and liberated intellectually individuals.

Balthus was one of those artists whose persona had extremely rich inner world filled up with elaborated perverse fantasy. He would not be able to commit any indecent act on the child in reality. His artistic perversity did not materialize in any physical wrongdoing, except on his paintings. He nourished his artistic intellectually degenerative mind with the images of beautiful, young and vulnerable souls. To the certain degree he was a perfect pedophile, one of those who just imagine and keep his dreams in closed room of his mind. The only exteriorization of his lusty thoughts was executed through the genius of his brush. The society would not persecute such pedophiles and certainly the world would be much safer if there would be just Balthuses around. Fantasizing and dreaming do not hurt anyone as long as their fantasies and dreams stay in the closed room of their minds.

To conclude, in the Balthus case to give the clear answer how to perceive his greatly painted artwork is not easy because the line between the adoration and perversion in his phenomenon is extremely thin. However, taking in consideration his inoffensive character it would be honest to say that his dissection of the female childhood was more about the adoration and the dichotomy of it than perversity. Furthermore, his obsessive adoration of the sublime erotic beauty of the unspoiled mentally and physically corpuses served him to provoke the attention to his artwork.

Through his art he was trying to prolong the memories of his own childhood and all his childish erotic fantasies. Balthus knew that each of us has hidden room of perversity locked in our minds against any intrusion of the socio-hypocritical order and with his art he would nourish the hunger of these rooms with his provocative imagery. At the end, art is at its best when it provokes our senses.

[1] Invented during the early Italian Renaissance.

[2] Short-listed for Nobel Prize.

[3] Some of the most interesting are Caravaggio, John Singleton Copley, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Renoir, Sully, John Singer Sargent, William Adolph Bouguereau, Thomas Gainsborough, Peale, Wilson, Butler, Van Honthorst, Ingres, Bonington, Millais, Daumier, Gustave Courbet.

[4] His father Erich Klossowski was the art historian who wrote, besides other books, the Monograph of Daumier. His mother Elisabeth Dorotea Spiro, known as Baladine Klossowska was a painter. Both parents and close family frequented the cultural elites of Paris.

[5] Published in 1847.

[6] Art critique from Comoedia, Paris, France.

[7] Contemporary example would be Freud, who likes to paint naked, or Bacon, who never cleans his studio. Feminist artists as Schneemann or Judy Chicago funded their own way to get the public attention to their creative conquests.

[8] It is suggested that the XVth century painting “La Pieta De Villeneuve-les-Avignon” painted inspired Balthus by Enguerrand Quarton. Scholar Sabine Rewald suggested that Balthus adopted the Pieta position of the girl to avenge the destruction of his mural painting from the Beatenberg church authorities in 1927.

[9] Antoinette de Watteville (1912-1927).

[10] Red: love, energy, excitement, sin, sacrifice. White: innocence, purity, initiation, the summary of all colors. Black: evil, harm, wrong, immorality, destruction, death.

[11] Balthus was using as a model for this painting the daughter of the janitor from the poor neighborhood. The girl was not comfortable to pose half naked but it was a possibility for her mother to gain little more money. The mother was all the time present when Balthus was sketching her daughter.

[12] Balthus was a great lover of cats, in his Chalet Swiss a Rossiniere he had uncountable amount of cats. When fourteen years old he published a book “Mitsou, forty images by Baltusz,” for which Rainer Maria Rilke wrote introduction, in the same time it was his first text written in French.

[13] In some believes cat symbolize vagina and mouse penis that is why women usually are afraid of mice.

[14] The painting was exposed in Kunsthalle de Berne in 1946 during the exposition titled “Ecole de Paris.”


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Sabine Rewald. Balthus’s Magic Mountain. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 139, No. 1134 (Sep., 1997), pp. 622-628.

Semir Zeki. Balthus ou La Quete de l’Essentiel. Les Belles Lettres, Paris, France, 1995.

Stanislas Klossowski de Rola. Balthus. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 1996.

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Suggs, Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association, 1997.

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It was an approach reminiscent of that adopted by Greta Garbo, and one that similarly only heightened curiosity about him. It did the prices of his paintings no harm either. In the last decade they have sold for as much as $6 million, a figure only matched by one other living painter, Lucian Freud.

Throughout his career, Balthus set himself apart from the abstract and conceptualist work synonymous with the development of art in the 20th century. He was one of the few artists of his time who sought to represent beauty. His drawing is in a class with Courbet, Cezanne, Seurat and Picasso in his periode rose, while his painting comes closest in spirit to that of Piero della Francesca, blending realism with the spiritual.

Painting, he declared, is itself a form of prayer. It was one he undertook almost every day, even into his nineties, rarely inviting anyone into the sanctum of his studio, even such close friends as Alberto Giacometti and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Yet the results of his meditation seemed to many closer to blasphemy. Indeed, the painting which first brought him to notice, The Guitar Lesson (1934), has a markedly similar composition to the Pieta de Villeneuve-les-Avignons in the Louvre.

In the picture, a teenage girl is shown stretched over the knees of another – her young music teacher – who gazes down at her pupil’s naked abdomen while tugging on her hair as if handing out a punishment. The child’s guitar lies abandoned on the floor. The painting was judged too obscene for public display by the director of the Galerie Pierre and was only shown to clients in a private room.

Nonetheless, it caused a sensation, and as late as 1978 it was withdrawn from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York because of speculation about its subject matter.

Thereafter Balthus was dogged by a reputation for perversion. “Balthus is a giant,” wrote one critic, “but to most people he’s the fellow who paints little girls showing their panties.”

He was born Balthasar Klossowski in Paris on February 29 1908, the second son of German-born painters. His father, Erich Klossowski, was also an art critic, and was proud of being the only German admitted to the circle of Pierre Bonnard and friends, which included Matisse. Balthasar’s elder brother, Pierre, went on to become a respected painter and an expert on the Marquis de Sade.

Balthasar was encouraged to paint by Bonnard, but it was the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who had a long affair with Balthus’s mother, who recognised the 12-year-old boy as a prodigy when he saw a series of 40 ink drawings by him. In 1921 Rilke had them published as a book entitled Mitsou, to which he provided a preface. Rilke also advised him to use his nickname of “Balthus”.

Mitsou told the tale of a lost cat, and Balthus liked to compare himself to the animal. Certainly there was something feline about his lazy, mischievous, rather manipulative nature. His favourite of his own works – and the only one he retained to the end of his life – was a self-portrait from 1935 which depicts an angular young man with a tawny cat. He called it A Portrait of HM The King of Cats painted by Himself.

From the outset of his career, he set himself firmly in the tradition of narrative painting. When still a boy he spent three months at the Louvre copying Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus. At 18, instead of going to art school, he bicycled to Arezzo to copy Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle.

He was thus largely self-taught. He always claimed to find painting extremely difficult, and was never satisfied that he had succeeded in committing his vision to canvas.

A 1927 portrait of Balthus by Man Ray captures the painter’s indifference to the vagaries of artistic fashion. His aquiline features are accentuated and he looks aristocratic and ascetic, sitting smoking from a cigarette-holder and gazing off camera.

A few years earlier, Balthus had drawn a self-portrait in the antique manner, with his noble-looking profile enclosed by a circle in the manner of a Roman coin. In later life, he would style himself “Count”, although the legitimacy of his claim to any such title did not bear close examination.

No more plausible was his story that he was related to Byron, a fantasy that revealed the romanticism in his nature. In 1933, after spending a year in Morocco on national service, Balthus created a series of prints illustrating Wuthering Heights. Balthus closely identified with Heathcliff, modelling the character’s features in the prints on his own.

In the 1930s, Balthus was in the thick of Parisian art life. He painted Joan Miro and Andre Derain and designed sets for Artaud’s surrealist production of The Cenci. He designed other sets for productions of Shakespeare and for Camus’s L’Etat de siege. Picasso, in particular, was both an admirer and collector of his work.

In 1934 he held his first one-man show in Paris. He was subsequently taken up by Pierre Matisse, the doyen of the New York art world, whose gallery showed his paintings in 1938. Balthus quickly became one of the most sought-after artists in America, although he did not go there until he was in his eighties.

Yet from the moment of his first big break in America, when he sold his painting The Street to the collector James Soby, his art excited unease. In one part of The Street a man has his hand on a girl’s crotch. When Soby hung the painting at home, his young son called friends round to view “the dirty picture”. It was promptly removed to a vault.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Balthus was conscripted into the French army, but after a month at the front his health broke down and he was demobilised. He spent most of the war painting in Switzerland.

In 1953 he left Paris for a chateau in the village of Chassy in central France. The seven years he spent there were to be his most productive period, resulting in more than 60 paintings, many of them cool, mysteriously still landscapes reminiscent of Seurat.

He was called away from Chassy in 1961 by Andre Malraux, then Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, who made him director of the Academie de France in Rome. This was situated in the Villa Medici, which has connections to many great artists. Michelangelo may have had a hand in the villa’s design; Velazquez painted in the gardens; Ingres was director for many years. Balthus had the house restored to its former splendour and went on collecting trips to the Far East and Afghanistan.

His work in Rome left him little time for painting, but once he had retired to Rossiniere, in Switzerland, where he lived in a large 19th-century chalet, his painting seemed to reach a new standard. The Turkish Room (1963-66) depicts a nude Chinese girl reclining on a sofa in a shuttered and elaborately furnished room. The decorative orientalism of this painting, completed with an almost other-worldly grace, forms a striking contrast to the solid, bourgeois figures of Balthus’s early work.

He continued the Far Eastern theme in two later canvasses, Japanese Figure with Black Mirror and Japanese Figure with Black Table (both 1976), each of which used as a model his second wife, Setsuko, a Japanese woman 35 years younger than him.

In recent years he had been much feted by younger celebrities, including the singers David Bowie and Bono. He continued to work until his death, and in 2000 showed a painting at the National Gallery in London. He had recently begun to make plans for a museum of his art to be housed in an annexe to his chalet.

He married first, in 1932, Antoinette de Watteville; they had two sons. He married secondly, in 1967, Setsuko Ideta; they had a daughter, and a son who predeceased him.

Published February 19 2001

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