You think the Brooklyn Museum had trouble with elephant dung on the Virgin Mary? The European painter Balthus entered the art world as notoriously as did any of last year's Sensations provocateurs, and his works didn't come wrapped in wry conceptual conceits. At his 1934 debut solo show at Paris' Gallerie Pierre, Balthus displayed a series of figurative paintings of young girls at puberty's dawn, in various states of undress. Most scandalous — even mounted in a back room and hidden by a curtain — was "The Guitar Lesson" (1934), which depicted a young female student and her female teacher. They are clearly engaged in a lesson of some kind, and it most definitely has nothing to do with the guitar.
Not one of the paintings in that show sold, and in the ensuing years Balthus would be pilloried for those works in much the same way Vladimir Nabokov was chastised for Lolita. But the artist, who died Feb. 18 of an undisclosed illness at his chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland, soon learned that ill repute wasn't necessarily harmful to one's life or career. Balthus — or, as he preferred to call himself, Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, a sham title — was famously arrogant, condescending, and roguish. He courted intrigue as assiduously as he disinterestedly deflected attention.
Born on Feb. 29, 1908, to expatriate Polish and Prussian parents, Balthasar Klossowski grew up moving from Paris to Switzerland to Berlin and back, drifting through the bohemian subculture of between-the-wars Europe. After his parents separated in 1917, his mother befriended painters Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard and poets Paul Valery, Antonin Artaud, and Rainer Maria Rilke (who later became her lover, and who wrote the preface to the 14-year-old Balthus' illustrated picture book, Mitsou le chat). Balthus' older brother, Pierre — who also passed away this year — became a noted novelist and intellectual. Though his family lived modestly, Balthus grew up surrounded by artists and thinkers who encouraged untamed imagination as well as serious aesthetic pursuit, wild cards who never let annoying discrepancies between fact and fiction get in the way of a creative spirit.
The budding painter took their lessons to heart. Throughout his life, Balthus did undertake intensive artistic study, but he was also prone to inventing a life story even more colorful than the truth. (See Nicholas Fox Weber's exhaustive if vindictive 1999 Balthus: A Biography for more details.) From the 1930s through the early '50s he bounced between Paris and Switzerland, marrying, separating, and making a living on commissioned paintings and theatrical costume design. He also became the familiar of a number of noteworthy artists, Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti among them.
By the close of the '50s, Balthus' notoriety was evolving into fame. He exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art and had his first Italian shows in Turin and Rome. By 1961, he had amassed enough of a reputation and social network to be appointed director of the Academy of France in Rome by France's Minster of Culture, the writer André Malraux. By that decade's close, he had established such an enigmatic persona that he had no qualms about telling a journalist that "Balthus is a painter about which nothing is known."
Pioneering as he was in the realm of chameleonic celebrity, though, Balthus remained single-mindedly devoted to his artistic muse. From his 1930s emergence until his death, seven decades that saw the seismic shifts of modernism, Balthus continued to apply his idiosyncratic, mannered style to passé genres — landscapes, portraiture — defiantly rejecting the au courant abstraction that gripped European and eventually American artists. His highly stylized realism gave his work a palpable psychological edge even as it remained informed by the grand masters, preparing contemporary audiences for the riffs on realism the postwar art world hatched. You can see it in Francis Bacon's carnal forms, and in Lucian Freud's unflinching, intimidatingly matter-of-fact nudes. You can see it in the combination of the mundane and the intimate that fires the more recent figurative work of Eric Fischl and the female nudes of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage. Balthus' influence is especially noticeable in photography, where artists have built entire careers on confrontational compositions.
As with other artists whose lives are as constantly honed as their works, it's easy to dismiss Balthus as a minor painter who worked on his public image more than his canvases. But as an artist who maintained his vision in the face of fashion's follies, he was truly an original — and those are too few and far between.
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