Balthus
Biography and Paintings of the Figurative Painter Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola.

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The Guitar Lesson (1934)
Private collection

Balthus (1908-2001)

The controversial Polish-French artist Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola (commonly known as Balthus), is best known for his paintings of young Lolita-type girls depicted in highly suggestive poses. Although these works have made him one of the cult figures of modern art, they have also, in later years, brought him considerable notoriety. Throughout his career, he rejected classification, demanding that his paintings be viewed in the flesh and not categorized or written about. Balthus was primarily interested in figurative painting, although he did paint some landscapes. His most famous works include The Street (1933, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and The Guitar Lesson (1934, private collection). A self-taught artist, Balthus despised modern abstraction, preferring to pay homage to Old Masters like Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Piero della Francesca (1483-1520). His works are widely available online in the form of poster art.

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Early Life

Balthus was born in Paris in 1908. His father, Erich Balthus was a reputed art historian who had written a monograph on the French painter and sculptor Honore Daumier (1808–79). His mother, Baladine Klossowska was a painter, and both parents were active on the cultural scene of Paris at the turn of the century. His older brother Pierre was a noted writer and philosopher. Close friends of the family included the Austrian poet and art critic Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926); the post-Impressionist artist Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), a founding member of the Les Nabis; and Andre Derain (1880–1954), co-founder with Mattise of the Fauvist art movement. Given the environment, it was no surprise that Balthus turned to art from a young age. However, although Paris was alive with modernism and movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism, Balthus showed little interest in these developments. He taught himself painting by copying Renaissance masters like Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Raphael (1486-1520) in the Louvre. In 1926 he travelled to Italy and copied frescoes of Piero della Francesca, which inspired some wall paintings he created in tempera in 1927 at the Protestant Church of Beatenberg, Switzerland.

 

First Solo Exhibition at Age 26

The majority of Balthus' early paintings are of Parisian scenes, which show influences of Old Masters, but also of his friends Derain and Bonnard. This culminated in his painting The Street (1933), with its severe 15th-century-style geometry. It was his first large scale work and was included in his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, in 1934. The painting depicts children playing in the Rue Bourbon-le-Chateau, Paris. The figures are frozen in action, and none of the passers-by seem to notice the aggressive nature of the boy to the left of the painting who is trying to lift a girl's skirt. The painting captivated the Surrealism movement, for it conveyed a crowded street but implied mental isolation. A full-page reproduction of the painting was included shortly afterwards in the Surrealist Journal Documents. Also included in the Galerie Pierre exhibition was one of Balthus' most notorious paintings: The Guitar Lesson (1934, private collection), along with Cathy Dressing (1933, Pompidou Centre, Paris). Because Pierre Loeb, the owner of Galerie Pierre also represented a number of surrealist artists, Balthus has often (wrongly) been considered a Surrealist - a not unnatural mistake given the close similarities in style between Balthus and the Surrealist pioneer Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978).

Early Works: Portraits and Landscapes

In Paris, Balthus befriended some of Europe's most important 20th century artists. Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) and Joan Miro (1893-1983) were close friends, as were the writers Pierre Jean Jouve (1887-1976) and Henri Michaux (1899-1984), and the American Dadaist and photographer Man Ray (1890-1976). Through Artaud, Balthus became involved in stage design, designing a set for a production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, an adaptation of the play Julius Caesar and Albert Camus' play State of Siege. In 1937 Balthus married Antoinette de Watteville, who came from an influential Swiss family. She would be his model for many paintings. During this period the artist established himself as a portraitist: see, for instance, his Portrait of Andre Derain (1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Joan Miro and his Daughter Dolores (1937–8, Museum of Modern Art).

Balthus also continued to explore the theme of troublesome adolescent physicality, in paintings like The Children (1937, Louvre, Paris), a work once owned by Picasso, as well as Therese Dreaming (1938, private collection). In the mid 1930s, Balthus also painted a few landscapes, including The Mountain, Summer (1937, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which was his largest painting to date and was conceived in homage to Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Poussin.

Mature Years

During the Second World War, Balthus fled with his wife to southern France and then to Switzerland. He produced two important oil paintings during this time: Landscape near Champrovent (1942–1945) and The Living Room (1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York). He also continued with his theme of young girls discovering themselves with The Golden Days (1944, Hirshhorn Museum) and Sleeping Girl (1943, Tate Gallery, London). When the War ended, the couple returned to France in 1946, spending a period of time in Southern France. Here, Balthus met Picasso and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Returning to Paris, Balthus worked on what are considered his masterpieces: The Room (1952, private collection), where a young girl without clothes is sprawled on a chair, as a dwarf like figure opens the curtain, spilling light into the room, and Passage du Commerce-St-Andre (1952, private collection).

Recognition

In 1956, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) held an exhibition of Balthus' works in New York. In 1961, he was appointed Director of the French Academy at the Villa de Medici in Rome, where he remained until 1977. As his fame grew, he cultivated an air of mystery about himself, refusing to talk about his past or his paintings. He claimed to be a Count, but he was also notorious for fabricating biographical details. In 1977 he moved to Switzerland, and married a Japanese woman who was 35 years his junior: an action which only added to the air of mystery around him. The couple lived in virtual isolation and Balthus rarely granted interviews. During the 1960s and 1970s he painted only a few pictures - one of which was The Turkish Room (1966, Pompidou Centre, Paris).

Balthus was one of the few living artists ever to be represented by the Louvre, who purchased his painting The Children, from Pablo Picasso. His work now hangs in the world's best art museums. When he died in 2001, Prime Ministers and rock stars attended his funeral. Painting at a time when figurative art was largely ignored, Balthus is recognised as one of the most controversial and innovative 20th century painters. That said, his interest in painting Lolita-type individuals in suggestive scenes has given feminist critics ample ammunition to blacken his image, which no doubt accounts for the relatively few major exhibitions accorded him over the past decades.

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