The Magazine

Mysterious Balthus

The painter as individualist

May 7, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 32 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Well into his forties he was largely unknown, but by the time he died -- this year, on February 18, at age ninety-two -- Balthasar Klossowski was the most celebrated artist in the world. He called himself "Balthus," a frenchified version of a childhood nickname. His parents were Poles (his mother a Jew), and he died in Switzerland. But he was born and spent much of his career in Paris, and he is known as a French painter -- the last survivor of the great age of French painting.

Whatever the art world was for, Balthus was against. He was that rarest of commodities in artistic circles, a non-conformist. His perversity was so thoroughgoing that in the end it looked like integrity, except when it was disgusting. He liked cats and little girls. He was against cubism, abstraction, surrealism, all forms of politicized art, and the twentieth century in general. Until late in life, he was against the idea of celebrity. He disliked having his photograph taken and, although his finest works are portraits, he rarely made self-portraits. According to his most famous pronouncement, which he used on several occasions, "Balthus is an artist about whom nothing is known."

He was in favor of Piero della Francesca and Gustave Courbet, of portraits and nudes, still-lifes, landscapes, and, above all, himself. He believed in art and greatness. From childhood on he seems to have regarded himself as a great man. He flirted with disaster like a reckless test pilot all his life, and got into frequent artistic crack-ups. "Disturbing" was his favorite way to paint -- and disturbing is a word with two senses: A surreal landscape by Giorgio de Chirico can be disturbing, but a freak show is also disturbing; a beautiful model half-undressed can be disturbingly beautiful, but a sexualized little girl half-undressed is disturbingly vile. Like the Japanese recipe for blowfish, "disturbing" is arguably delicious up to a point, but beyond that point it becomes fatal. Balthus lacked a firm enough, wise enough hand to prepare this doubtful dish. Too many of his paintings are merely toxic.

So why should we concern ourselves with his work? His draftsmanship is cramped and timid, an inadequate foundation for his big ambitions. He has no color sense, and his work tends to be overbearing and profoundly humorless. The best you can say for most of his paintings is that they are no good.

The answer lies in his gift for painterly architecture; many of his pictures are imposing and impressively composed -- graceless yet with a formidable, brooding presence, like a Mussorgsky opera or a grimy nineteenth-century British jail. His best portraits are as good as twentieth-century portraits can be. And occasionally he stops grinding his teeth, quits struggling to produce masterpieces, and lets go a picture (as you might release a captured songbird) that is as pale and lovely as the first hesitant daffodil after a dirty winter.

His Therese Dreaming (1938) is all too characteristic. The painting is part of the small "Balthus Remembered" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York through May 27. A girl of maybe eleven sleeps on a bench with one leg drawn up (her skirt and slip have fallen crumpled to her waist), hands joined on her head, a cat lapping milk at her feet. The composition is arresting: stillness coiled tight; a snake about to strike. The girl is asleep, yet each leg and arm is sharply bent; she seems menacing, and her dreams must be menacing too. The cat crouches low, pent-up and ominous.

Perhaps this makes the painting sound like a haunted house, a dark masterpiece. It isn't. There is something wrong. The girl's bare legs and crumpled skirt and exposed panties aren't narrative details. They are the whole point, the painting's unequivocal focus; the jutting knee is dead-center. Balthus has painted this little girl in the spirit of Degas approaching a middle-aged whore. Before we even have time to be morally offended, we are aesthetically revolted. ("We're fed up with Balthus and his little girls," the artist Alberto Giacometti is supposed to have said.)

And Balthus can easily produce revulsion without resorting to half-naked children. Some people have a taste for the grotesque -- for oriental theater masks and German folk tales, for medical curiosities in bottles, or TV shows about techniques of execution or bizarre diseases. In his own distinctive way, Balthus was a master of this language.