Balthus - Biography and Legacy
French Painter, Illustrator, and Theatrical Set Designer
Biography of Balthus
Balthus (originally named Balthasar Klossowski) was born in Paris, France to an artistic family; his father was a prominent art historian and his mother was a painter. He was exposed at an early age to the arts and social scene in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, including his mentor (and his mother's lover) the celebrated poet Rainer Maria Rilke. His older brother Pierre was also a noted artist, author, philosopher and translator, whose own circle of acquaintances and influences included Georges Bataille. Bataille's interest in transgression - including ideas of sado-masochism studied in the work of the Marquis de Sade - would certainly have swirled around Balthus by way of his brother.
As a young boy, his drawings were published in his book Mitsou (1921), which included an introduction by Rilke. This started him off at an early age on a lifelong artistic career, and was also the beginnings of his use of cats in his work.
He became infatuated with Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) at a young age, and one of his first large projects was to create illustrations for it, including images of himself as Heathcliff. While the project was not commercially published, it did provide a theme that permeates his entire oeuvre. In his works he is essentially representing a reflective memory with a current desire. Both his own experiences as a child and his connection to the character of Heathcliff suffused the output of his career with both a mythic and simultaneously voyeuristic nature.
Clearly his early exposure to creative energies both from his parents and through their social circles propelled him to an artistic career from a young age. He created art throughout his youth, while traveling overseas and when he served in the army in Morocco in the early 1930s.
After his military service, he began dedicating himself to developing his paintings in his Paris studio. During this time, he began to paint from young models, including his neighbor Therese, who is prominently featured in some of his early works.
As a central hub of modernism, Paris at its height was home to some of the artistic expressions that have shaped abstract contemporary art today, including Cubism. Balthus, however, retained his earlier classical influences and continued to work in a representational mode.
His first Paris exhibition was held in 1934, and he made his debut into the art world with a scandalous start. Perhaps his best-known (and most notorious) work is The Guitar Lesson (1934), one of his first paintings to use young girls to address serious themes.
He was friends with many in the Parisian cultural elite, and Picasso, Giacometti, Man Ray, and Breton were among his social group (although he was not fond of the latter). He designed sets for plays staged by Albert Camus and Antonin Artaud, and was generally well respected as an artist by these many notable peers.
At this time he was surrounded by Surrealist colleagues who sought to capture the subconscious in man through various forms of automatic and free expression. He strove to distance his own psychological state from interpretations of his work, preferring to cast it as a way to reflect the unconscious of others, including both his subjects and those who viewed them.
It is important to consider that, thematically, the portrayal of young children - and especially young girls - was in no way foreign to his contemporary artistic milieu. Despite the public outrage at The Guitar Lesson, its subject matter drew from the similar interests of other artistic creators by whom Balthus was surrounded. In particular, Man Ray's work with photo collage incorporated many seductive positions inhabited by prepubescent girls, while Rilke explored themes of child sexuality in his literary works. Artists Egon Schiele and Otto Dix also created explicitly sexual imagery of young girls, and Balthus would have been familiar with all these artists' work.
From the beginning of his work in painting and drawing, he infused each of his pieces with elements of care and respect for the figures depicted in them. While his young children may seem promiscuous, they are given the clarity and gravity previously reserved in portraiture for dignitaries and adults deemed more worthy. Unlike the treatments given his subjects' stiff predecessors, he imbues his subjects with an awareness of the world around them, and reflects a sense of their internal drives and passions.
In these pieces the desires of the children represented are embodied within an object or setting that the artist has placed as a "safe" enclosure for those desires. His dedication to and respect for his subjects is also apparent in the assiduous techniques with which he portrays them within formal compositions meticulously rendered.
Balthus's work as a set designer in the theater is crucial to the context of his life and creative career, as he essentially mastered from a young age the creation of characters and narratives through setting the physical scene for the tableaux in which they are ensconced (one critic referred to this aspect of the stiffly set scenes in his paintings as "button-pushing theatricality"). His father's own experience designing for theater in Berlin and Munich no doubt influenced his own early engagement in productions for ballet, opera and theater.
In 1937 he married Antoinette de Watteville, a long acquaintance and frequent model for his work, with whom he eventually had two sons. However, as the 1940s brought war and political disruption to Europe, he moved his family, first to the French countryside, and then to Switzerland, before returning to Paris in 1946 after the war was over.
Given his influential artistic social circle, it is no surprise that his work was included in a number of notable exhibitions around the world. In New York he was represented by the Pierre Matisse Gallery (run by the son of Henri), and in 1956 he had his first major museum solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. By this time, his tendency towards the eccentric had become well established.
In 1964 he moved to Rome, integrating with the cultural set there and befriending cultural legends such as Federico Fellini, while serving as director of the French Academy in Rome at Villa Medici. He moved again to Switzerland in 1977 and married his second wife - the Japanese artist Setsuko Ideta - with whom he had a son, who died at a very early age. Adding to the continual aura of the scandalous surrounding him was the fact that she was thirty-five years younger than Balthus when they married.
The mystique that endures around his life and career was in no doubt fostered by the artist himself, but it is clear that his eccentricities also contributed to his establishment in the art history canon. Scholars who have focused attention on his work have proposed that Balthus's eccentric life was actually essential to the idiosyncratic character of his work. While his work contained subject matter that many saw as erotic and borderline pornographic, Balthus barely if ever addressed these claims formally, which allowed him to be removed from the painting as seen by the viewer. While an audience may seek to uncover hidden intentions and meaning in artwork based on the artist's biography, he remained committed to maintaining distance between the artist and his paintings.
In 1968 a retrospective of his work was held at London's Tate Gallery, and in preparation the painter sent them the following telegram: NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.
The idea of having a retrospective without any biographical information may seem unusual, but it is a sign of his attempt to disengage conceptions of the artist from the artwork.
Both Balthus and his son addressed dismissively the notion that his work was erotic or pornographic. For Balthus, the voyeuristic intention seen by the viewer is one that reflects the viewer's unconscious drives, not the artist's. Therefore, if the work was seen as pornographic, it was the viewer not the artist who gave it this meaning.
Balthus's son wrote about his father, and was adamant that his father did not see his subjects as objects of sexual or erotic lust, but rather as muses in the sense of how real-life individuals have served as inspiring models for traditional master artists. He points to the many influences from his social circle as well as the great tradition of painting young women seen throughout art historical movements.
He continued to work until his death, but he led a more and more reclusive life with his wife. He died in 2001 in Switzerland.
The Legacy of Balthus
His melding of these more classical approaches to the 20th century's expansive possibilities as developed in Surrealism and Neo-expressionism showed the influence of his contemporaries and peers such as George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and Alberto Giacometti. His accomplishments in creating tableau that were both highly composed visually and heavily evocative of extreme psychological states, even while placed in banal settings, pre-figured theatrical framings and setups by later film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette based his 1985 film Hurlevent on work by Balthus, while François Truffaut's Domicile Conjugal (1970) features a prominent scene in which an arguing husband and wife contend over a drawing by Balthus.
Among those artists he influenced are painters of later generation figurative expressionism such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Currin, Alex Katz, and Will Barnet. The intimate and intense scenes depicted by Balthus have also been cited as an influence by photographer Duane Michaels. More contemporary homages to his work have been undertaken by Hisaji Hara and Julie Blackmon. His more implicit as well as explicit indicators of sexually charged and socially transgressive encounters further pointed the way to exploring such themes for the countless more radical artists willing and interested in taking up similar themes in his wake.