A young girl, a cat, a mirror… We thought that we already knew everything there was to know about Balthus. But in Riehen, Switzerland, the Beyeler Foundation is staging an enlightened show on the enigmatic work of this artist. From naked bodies to serene landscapes…
When we think of Balthus, we often think of his pale, consenting young ladies, surprised in dubious positions. But Balthus offers more than striking images of these sleeping beauties, these chrysalids who disturb as much as they enchant. Above all, Balthus is associated with the Italian countryside and the landscapes of the Morvan region, nostalgia for a tranquil world. In Arezzo, the painter’s vision was shaken up when he discovered the frescoes of Piero della Francesca, enhanced by a certain buzz in the air… Born in 1908 in Paris and of Polish descent, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, better known as Balthus, spent part of his childhood in Switzerland. He became close to artists Bonnard and Derain, and with the encouragement of Rilke, he chose painting from an early age. Apart from perhaps Henri Michaux, an unclassifiable artist, Balthus had no equivalents this century. And yet, on a technical level, nothing seems to stand out in particular. Perhaps because style and great art ultimately consist in covering up one’s game. This withdrawal, this masterly discretion is undoubtedly what makes him one of the great 20th century masters. Singlehandedly, he encapsulates an original combination of Quattrocento painting, Japanese poetry, and the landscapes of Gustave Courbet. In short, something truly magical. But to get there, he’d have to put in time. His path wasn’t that straightforward. When Balthus was first shown in Pierre Loeb’s gallery, in 1934, the failure was excruciating: not a single work sold. It wasn’t until 1966, with the retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, that his works found their just recognition.
Today, Balthus can be found in Riehen, in the countryside of Basel. The Beyeler Foundation is holding a retrospective exhibition on him, the very first exhaustive presentation of his work in German-speaking Switzerland, and the first exhibition on the painter to be organised in a Swiss museum in a decade. And yet, the connections between the artist and this country are strong: his childhood in Berne, Geneva and Beatenberg, his marriage with Swiss woman Antoinette de Watteville, numerous visits to Switzerland, and his last decades spent in Rossinière, an authentic mountain village… Balthus loved Switzerland. And as the Beyeler Foundation loves Balthus, the exhibition is a big success. No doubt because the foundation shows the painter as the great 20th century artistic master that he is. Or better yet, as one of the most unique. Because what do we see here, in Riehen? What’s this strange feeling that suddenly comes over you? There’s something disturbing about looking at this complex, faceted, timeless work that is so removed from the preoccupations of the modern avant-garde. It’s because Balthus takes a discreet, isolated path, one that’s enigmatic to say the least. If his approach had to be summed up, we’d cite his magnum opus, his monumental masterpiece, Passage du Commerce-Saint-André, painted between 1952 and 1954, today owned by the family of banker Claude Hersaint, an unswerving patron of the artist. The painting, shown in the context of a long-term loan to the Beyeler Foundation, is a key element of this retrospective. Everything starts off from it… and returns to it. Spatial dimension and temporal depth, a relationship to the world and to objects… In this paradoxical, even ambiguous painting, innocence mingles with irony, bringing irrefutable proof of the power of Balthus’ genius, his pictorial strategies, his wild academicism. In the seemingly peaceful Passage all antimonies converge, reconciling fantasy and reality, banality and eroticism. According to Raphaël Bouvier, curator at the Beyeler Foundation, the painting is “composed like a big mystery”; for deputy curator Michiko Kono, “it carries all sorts of themes, the street, dreams, theatricality, the three stages of life. Added to this, reference to the great Italian Renaissance masters, and you have an emblematic work which remains just as enigmatic when we look at it today.” A little like Balthus himself, this fascinating painter, both an aristocrat and an “artisan” – as he liked to describe himself –, a member of high society and a fierce loner.
The anti-modern movement
Top marks go to the show presentation. Everything is impeccable, luminous, without a hitch. Michiko Kono takes care to point out that it’s a retrospective that covers the period from 1920 to 1990. There’s no thematic scenography, no way-out gimmicks… No, just a clear chronological thread “which could well illustrate the anti-modern movement represented by Balthus, who renewed pictorial language across the century while staying loyal to his gestures, combining memories of Masaccio and children’s tales from Swiss popular tradition.” Naturally, the exhibition begins with works form his youth, in the 1920s. Then follow several commissioned portraits, and an encounter with the painter’s favourite model, Thérèse Blanchard, an eleven-year-old unknown, a budding beauty already conscious of her charms. In 1941, an art lover going by the name of Picasso purchased a painting from Balthus, Les Enfants Blanchard – there are some keen gazes that make no mistakes. Next came the period in Champrovent, in Savoie, France, then Fribourg, Switzerland. Naked bodies would be succeeded by serene landscapes.
Amongst the exhibition’s major pieces, we can of course single out several paintings form the late 1950s. This was the period when the painter retreated to Chassy, the era when he produced one of his most stunning works. In our mind, it was here, in the gentle light of the Morvan region, cut off from the rest of the world, that his painting would reach its heights. From1954 until the early 1960s, he thus executed paintings of an overwhelming beauty. Sixty or so paintings, portraits, nudes or landscapes in this very “local” colour – a vibrant mix of purple, pink and brown, reflecting the mood at the Château de Chassy. In 1961, the setting changed. From the Yonne Valley, the painter shifted abruptly to the eternal hills of ancient Rome. Selected by André Malraux, French minister of culture at the time, Balthus was appointed to head up the Académie de France in Rome. There he would remain for the next fifteen years. It was during his stay in Rome at the Villa Médicis, under the benevolent gaze of Bassano and Giorgione, that he would come up with some of his loveliest works, such as La Chambre turque, in which we can detect Ingres and alluring hints of Matisse…
A public scandal
To conclude, let’s say that as we face forty or so major paintings from all of the artist’s creative periods, we get a sense of his joy of painting. As we look at this art produced slowly over time, perhaps Hesiod’s poem Works and Days will come to mind: this idea that painting is a harsh, lonely path. In any case, Balthus, this “figurative artist in an abstract era”, will stand out as a singular figure. Before his death in 2001, we know that the artist lived in a chalet in Rossinière, in the Swiss Alps, with his second wife Setsuko, originally from Japan. We know of his love of Italy and the Sienese painters. And as knowledge knows no boundaries, we can also name one of his favourite books: the treatise on painting, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. China, Zhuangzi and Taoist thinking, the landscapes of Poussin, the frescoes of Lorenzetti… Between asceticism and worldliness, Balthus was a free spirit. Perhaps the last of the humanists.
Yet from a museum perspective, showing Balthus today is something of an odd challenge. We’ve seen that his young girls with hitched up skirts can sometimes cause visitors to feel… a little uneasy. In November 2017 in New York, the 1938 painting Thérèse rêvant created a public scandal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A petition was even launched online to demand that the work be taken down, or at least be placed in context! A controversy from another age, awakened by a throng of sexual-abuse revelations relating to the #MeToo campaign, which is relaunching debate on the limits of artistic representation…
“Balthus, until 1 January 2019 (the exhibition will then travel to the Muceo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid). Beyeler Foundation, Baselstrasse 77, Riehen, Switzerland. www.fondationbeyeler.ch