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“The real isn’t what you think you see. One can be a realist of the unreal and a figurative painter of the invisible.”

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Balthazar Klossowski de Rola (February 29, 1908 in ParisFebruary 18, 2001) was a French artist of Polish origins whose work was figurative at a time when modern art was surrealist and abstract in nature, making him one of the first anti-modernists. His distinctive brand of nymphesque erotica with lesbian overtones found in The Guitar Lesson (1934) and Thérèse rêvant (1938) have been influential to many present day erotomaniacs. Detractors accuse him of pedophilia and pornography but Balthus insisted that his work was not pornographic, but that it just recognized the discomforting facts of children's sexuality.


Influence and legacy

The work of Balthus shows numerous influences, including the writings of Emily Brontë, the writings and photography of Lewis Carroll, and the paintings of Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Simone Martini, Poussin, Jean-Étienne Liotard, Géricault, Ingres, Goya, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Courbet, Edgar Degas, Félix Vallotton and Paul Cézanne. His favourite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

His work has strongly influenced several contemporary artists; among them Jan Saudek and John Currin.

Balthus's 1957 Girl at a Window painting was featured in François Truffaut's film Bed & Board in a quarrel between the couple. Jacques Rivette's 1985 film Hurlevent (1985) was inspired by Balthus' early 1930s drawings.

Life and work

Style and themes

Balthus' style is primarily classical and academic. Though his technique and compositions were inspired by pre-renaissance painters (especially Piero della Francesca), there are also eerie intimations reminiscent of contemporary surrealists like de Chirico. Painting the figure at a time when figurative art was largely ignored, he is widely recognised as an important 20th century artist.

Many of his paintings show young girls in an erotic context. Balthus insisted that his work was not pornographic, but that it just recognized the discomforting facts of children's sexuality.

Early life

In his formative years his art was sponsored by Rainer Maria Rilke, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. His father, Erich Klossowski, a noted art historian (he wrote a monograph on Daumier), and his mother Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro (known as Baladine Klossowska) were part of the cultural elite in Paris. Balthus' older brother, Pierre Klossowski, was a philosopher and writer influenced by theology and the works of Marquis de Sade. Among the visitors and friends of the Klossowskis were famous writers such as André Gide and Jean Cocteau, who found some inspiration for his novel Les Enfants Terribles (1929) on his visits to the family.

In 1921 Mitsou, a book which included forty drawings by Balthus, was published. It depicted the story of a young boy and his cat, with a preface by Balthus' mentor Rilke. The theme of the story foreshadowed his life-long fascination with cats, which resurfaced with his self-portrait as The King of Cats (1935). In 1926 Balthus visited Florence, copying frescos by Piero della Francesca, which inspired another early ambitious work by the young painter: the tempera wall paintings of the Protestant church of the Swiss village of Beatenberg (1927). From 1930 to 1932 he lived in Morocco, was drafted into the Moroccan infantry in Kenitra and Fes, worked as a secretary, and sketched his painting La Caserne (1933).

A young artist in Paris

Moving in 1933 into his first Paris studio at the Rue de Furstemberg and later another at the Cour de Rohan, Balthus showed no interest in modernist styles such as Cubism. His paintings often depicted pubescent young girls in erotic and voyeuristic poses. One of the most notorious works from his first exhibition in Paris was The Guitar Lesson [1] (1934), which caused controversy due to its depiction of a sexually explicit lesbian scene featuring a young girl and her teacher. Other important works from the same exhibition included La Rue (1933), La Toilette de Cathy (1933) and Alice dans le miroir (1933).

In 1937 he married Antoinette de Watteville, who was from an old and influential aristocratic family from Bern. He had met her as early as in 1924, and she was the model for the aforementioned La Toilette and for a series of portraits. Balthus had two children from this marriage, Thaddeus and Stanislas (Stash) Klossowski, who recently published books on their father, including the letters by their parents.

Early on his work was admired by writers and fellow painters, especially by André Breton and Pablo Picasso. His circle of friends in Paris included the novelists Pierre Jean Jouve, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Joseph Breitbach, Pierre Leyris, Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris and René Char, the photographer Man Ray, the playwright and actor Antonin Artaud, and the painters André Derain, Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti (one of the most faithful of his friends). In 1948, another friend, Albert Camus, asked him to design the sets and costumes for his play L'Etat de Siège (The State of Siege, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault). Balthus also designed the sets and costumes for Artaud's adaptation for Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci (1935), Ugo Betti's Delitto all'isola delle capre (Crime on Goat-Island, 1953) and Barrault's adaptation of Julius Caesar (1959-1960).

Champrovent to Chassy

In 1940, with the invasion of France by German forces, Balthus fled with his wife to Savoy to a farm in Champrovent near Aix-les-Bains, where he began his work on two major paintings: Landscape near Champrovent (1942-1945) and The Living Room (1942). In 1942 he escaped Nazi France to Switzerland, first to Bern and in 1945 to Geneva, where he made friends with the publisher Albert Skira and the writer and member of the French Resistance André Malraux. Balthus returned to France in 1946 and a year later he made a trip with André Masson to Southern France, meeting figures such as Picasso and Jacques Lacan, who eventually became a collector of Balthus' work. In 1950 he designed the stage, together with Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, for a production of the Mozart opera Così fan tutte in Aix-en-Provence. Three years later he moved into the Chateau de Chassy in the Morvan, living with his niece Frédérique Tison and finishing his large-scale masterpieces La Chambre (The Room 1952, possibly influenced by Pierre Klossowski's novels) and La Passage de Commerce Saint-André (1954).

Later life and work

As international fame grew with exhibitions in the gallery of Pierre Matisse (1938) and the Museum of Modern Art (1956) in New York City, he cultivated the image of himself as an enigma. In 1964 he moved to Rome, where he presided (appointed by the French Minister of Culture André Malraux) over the Villa de Medici as director of the French Academy in Rome, and made friends with the filmmaker Federico Fellini and the painter Renato Guttuso.

In 1977 he moved to Rossinière, Switzerland. That he had a second, Japanese wife Setsuko Klossowska de Rola whom he married in 1967 and was thirty-five years his junior, simply added to the air of mystery around him (he met her in Japan, during a diplomatic mission also initiated by Malraux). A son, Fumio, was born in 1968 but died only two years later.

The photographers and friends Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martine Franck (Cartier-Bresson's wife), both portrayed the painter and his wife and their daughter Harumi (born 1973) in his Grand Chalet in Rossinière in 1999.

Balthus was the only living artist who had his artwork in the Louvre's collection (it came from Picasso's private collection when it was donated to that museum).

Prime Ministers and rock stars alike attended the funeral of Balthus. Bono, lead-singer of U2, sang for the hundreds of mourners at the funeral, including the President of France, the Prince Sadruddhin Aga Khan, supermodel Elle McPherson and the photographer Cartier-Bresson.

Ancestral Debates

Balthus's ancestral debates

Films on Balthus

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