Balthus’s is a realm of pictorial paradoxes, artifices, mirrors and masks. An enormously learned and histrionic aesthete, known for his mistrust towards interpreters and commentators on his work, Balthus had a penchant for questioning his audience about aesthetic credos and expectations. Little wonder he became the controversial figure, who has been equally regarded as the rappel-à-l’ordre classicist and the malicious, sceptical realist; the painter of taboos and the taboo painter; the quaint portraitist and the kitsch caricaturist; the forerunner of Postmodern discontinuity and the ultimate epigone. After all, when he emerged in the early 30s, following the heyday of the most radical avant-garde movements, he immediately felt closer to individualists such as Bonnard, and even more so to Derain, in the pursuit of an all-encompassing, chameleonic high art. And what establishes his stature within modernity is precisely the way he has continued to prompt, sustain and play with interpretation – not least by challenging simple art-historical categories such as progressive and conservative.
Therefore, he is better understood in large retrospectives such as the one currently being exhibited in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale and at the Académie de France, Villa Medici, that seeks to traverse Balthus’s shifting, mercurial attitude towards representation. Curated by Cecile Debray (Centre Pompidou, Paris) and Matteo Lafranconi (Palaexpo, Rome), the survey is organised under headings that echo the chapters of the rich accompanying catalogue (only available in Italian and French), with entries by scholars including premier expert Jean Clair. The literary inspiration of such headings as “Through the Looking Glass”, in themselves an homage to Balthus’s various relations with writers and books, should not mislead. Within the chronological hang, here the approach adopted is inherently phenomenological, each room being dedicated to the formation of specific aspects of the artist’s multifarious explorations – hence the profusion of supporting documents, preparatory materials and direct comparisons with works by some of his comrades (Derain, of course, as well as Antonin Artaud, Alberto Giacometti and his brother Pierre Klossowki).
From his admiration for Italian primitives to his oblique rapports with the art of his time (notably, with Surrealism, Metafisica and Neue Sachlichkeit); the visual theatricality and sharpness of the 30s and 40s to the powdery, sinisterly serene later interiors and landscapes, Balthus’s most renowned turns in ‘style’ and ‘theme’ are all tackled. But what the exhibition most succeeds in, is the articulation of the subtleties within each phase of the artist’s career. This is the case with the arresting central wall of the opening section, “La Rue”, devoted to the juxtaposition of the two versions of his earlier key-piece, The Street (1929;1933), together, remarkably, for the first time. Alongside lesser known cityscapes and the rarely seen copies from Piero della Francesca’s Arezzo cycle, these highly choreographed scenes draw attention to Balthus’s protean metier: the shifts in synthesis, texture and register, the candour and brutality in composition, the sudden chromatic discoveries happening in and among the works, testify to the intuitive and vigorous nature of his practice, that has nothing of the often objected frozen, self-complacent archaism.
Tenors and meanings, by turns, are never univocal as they are embedded in his idiosyncratic, whimsical formal execution, which saves the pictures from the notorious accusations of prurience and mere eroticism. Beginning with the roots of his sensitivity in Romantic and Symbolist literature (Lewis Carroll, Emily Brontë and his mentor Rilke were all equally important), more thematic sections like “Childhood”, “Wuthering Heights” and “The Room”, delve into the multifaceted, ambiguously metaphoric inflections of his imagery. As in a Bildungsroman that unravels patterns of personal maturation, pivotal pieces like The Blanchard children (1937) – once owned by Picasso – and Solitaire (1943) touch on the impermanence of beauty and innocence, sentiments and relations, fears and dreams – the awkward poses of the figures and the recourse to objects as allusions to identity owing much to paradigmatic fables and illustrated books (Hoffmann’s 1845 Der Struwwelpeter, for example) as well as to genre painting (both Chardin and, to some degree, Greuze come to mind). Encountering pictures like Cathy’s toilet (1933) and The Room (1952-54), one might seize on the concurrence of contrarieties such as explicitness and control, voyeurism and intimacy, the macabre and the beautiful, the nightmarish and the oniric, the conscious and the unconscious. And yet puzzlement dominates in that everything is ingested and subsumed in relation to the ever-mutable, provoking nature of creation. This is because Balthus was bewildered by his images as much as we are, he did not know anything better than us viewers. He travelled genres, revived tropes, embraced dialectical imaginative approaches, to show their fluidity, their ineffability. Only when one accepts the ability of his figuration to re-infuse mystery and wonder into an art he felt dominated by technique and ‘meaning’, can one understand how the painter of languid girls in erotic poses can coexist with the poet of the Arcadian elegy of his mesmerising later landscapes. If anything, his cats – among the many examples on view is the well-known self-portrait The King of Cats (1935) – are a lunatic, baffling personification of this.
A possible reservation concerns Atelier, the part-II show at the Académie de France, presented as a foray into the artist’s studio, the creative process and the methods behind the works made since his years as the director of the Institution (1961-1977). By the time one reaches the Villa Medici, the exhibition at the Scuderie will have already illuminated Balthus’s versatile attitude towards matters of style and craft, thanks to the presence of works spanning his entire production, variations (for example, the whole suite of The Week with four Thursdays, 1944-49) and modes (as in the section “The Perspective Box”), and to the impeccable wall texts. Looking at the visual journey, an elegant but less incisive display of his Orientalist pictures, his late drawings and Polaroids, and spectrally unfinished canvases, Atelier would be better framed as a souvenir, an intimate tribute to the artist’s final decades and to his permanence in Rome – the curious excursus into the artist’s direct involvement in the restoration of the XVI century edifice, for example. Once this is taken account of, viewers can continue to explore Balthus’s achievements outside his studio – a place he was famously secretive about –, where they can be appreciated for their contribution to art.
Courtesy Scuderie del Quirinale, Académie de France, Villa Medici, Rome
Photo © Mondadori Portfolio/ AKG Images
Installation Photo © Claudio Raimondo