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Balthus (born 1908) was a European painter and stage designer who worked within the Western tradition of figure painting. He is best known for his paintings of everyday life invested with a sense of mystery, symbolism, and eroticism.
Balthus was born Balthasar Klossowski in Paris, France, on February 29, 1908, to a Prussian family that had left Silesia five years before. His parents were both painters, as was his brother, and they lived in Switzerland and Berlin during the turbulent years before, during, and after World War I. Balthus did not study at the Academy of Fine Arts or in the studio of another painter. Instead, he taught himself by copying masterpieces at the Louvre Museum, as had many painters in the 19th century. He did attend sketching classes at the Grand Chaumiere, an informal art school, where he received criticism from Maurice Vlaminck and Pierre Bonnard, two prominent painters associated with the Ecole de Paris.
Balthus copied works by the French Neo-Classic painter Nicolas Poussin and the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a close friend of his mother, urged him to use his childhood nickname, Balthus, as his artistic name. Married twice with three children, Balthus lived most of his life in Paris but moved in 1977 to near Beatenburg, Switzerland.
Painting Style and Subject Matter
Balthus' work was always figurative, despite the strong tendency toward abstraction in the 20th century. Throughout his career the subject matter of his work was fairly constant, depicting street scenes, landscapes, portraits, and interior domestic scenes. He is best known for his paintings of adolescents, especially young girls who are often nude or partially clothed in intimate, indoor settings where the painter—and by extension the viewer—appear to be peeking. His manner of painting is often considered classical: the figures and objects are weighty geometric forms that appear frozen in time. Balthus' composition, derived from Renaissance models, used the inter-relationship of figures, objects, and setting to create a sense of space. The atmospheric stillness in Balthus' painting infuses the everyday activities he depicted with a psychological sense of mystery and intrigue.
Balthus worked outside the main artistic currents that developed in Paris, but during the 1930s he was in contact with the Surrealist group and he became friendly with the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. The Surrealists, who were interested in the psychology of the unconscious, were drawn to the dream-like quality of Balthus' paintings, their sexual ambiguity, and his confessed desire to shock. Balthus himself disavowed the erotic content in his work.
Later, he built up thick layers of oil paint on his canvases, called an impasto, and painted with bright, warm colors which made the paintings look like frescos executed in plaster. The sense of bright light in them is almost Mediterranean, and it appears to dissolve distinctions between things, a pronounced difference from the sharp focus of his earlier work. Besides this further reference to Renaissance art he also executed work based on Japanese prints.
Designed Stage Sets for Artaud
Balthus did not paint continuously throughout his life. He also designed stage sets and costumes for the theater, most notably for his close friend Antonin Artaud, the dramatist, actor, and poet. Balthus did the set for Artaud's Les Cencis in 1935, a violent and scandalous story, and for productions of Shakespeare and Mozart's Cosi fan Tutti. Balthus fought in World War II in Alsace and was the director of the French Academy in Rome between 1961 and 1977.
Career Flourished First in U.S.A.
Earlier in his life Balthus was better known as a painter in the United States than in Europe where he had only two one-person shows between 1934 and 1946. The artist owes much of his fame to two American businessmen who took note of him in the 1930s. Connecticut millionaire James Thrall Soby, purchased Balthus' The Street in 1937 and then donated the painting, revised by the artist himself to censor an image of a boy grabbing a girl's crotch, to The Museum of Modern Art in 1956. Pierre Matisse, an art dealer, gallery owner, and son of Henri Matisse, began selling Balthus' work in New York in the 1930s. Matisse gave Balthus seven one-man shows in his gallery over the years as well. He was shown more in New York during the 1930s and 1940s and was the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984.
Work Difficult to Categorize
Balthus' work is difficult to place within the history of 20th century art as he never embraced any of this century's major art trends and he was never associated with any group of artists. He remained a kind of solitary figure. His insistence on working figuratively ran counter to much of the mainstream art of this century, although he was held in esteem by many abstract painters for his purely formal strengths. Picasso owned at least one of Balthus' major paintings. What identifies his work as modern is the presence of a highly personal psychology in his painting and the challenging nature of his subject matter. Balthus' art is not an art of experimentation or innovation, but one of reinvestigation of traditional painting attitudes and techniques and of an attempt to reinvest Western painting conventions with new meaning. A renewed interest in Balthus can be explained by recent attempts by art historians to revise the orthodox history of modernism to explain the work of ideosyncratic artists such as Balthus and to acknowledge the continuing presence of figurative art throughout the 20th century.
Further Reading on Balthus
For a thorough account of Balthus' life and a good number of color illustrations of work from all periods see Sabine Rewald's Balthus (1984), a catalog for his retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1984. Another monograph with a text by Jean Leymarie, Balthus (1979), was published earlier. There are various catalogs on specific aspects of Balthus' work, such as Balthus, Drawings and Water-colors by Giovanni Carandente, but there is no real examination of the psycho-sexual content in his work. See also Balthus Receives A Visitor by Ted Morgan in the New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1994; and Solitary In the City of Art by Jed Perl in The New Republic, March 13, 1995. Balthus can be found on the Web at A&E Biography, http://www.biography.com/find/find.html. □