Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski) revisited

Parenthesis: The Metropolitna Museum of Art in New York has a Balthus Exhibition “Cats and Girls“(September 25, 2013–January 12, 2014). 

“I never interpreted my paintings or sought to understand what they might mean. Anyway, must they necessarily mean something?” Balthus (2)

Balthus and his Japanese wife Setsuko
Balthus and his Japanese wife Setsuko

Back in 2009 I wrote an article on Balthus, one of my favorite painters of the 20th century, where I presented some of his paintings. I did not attempt (futility prevented me) to analyze them, I simply presented them, some of them with one sentence comments or questions.

Today I revisit Balthus after having seen three of his works at the Art Institute of Chicago. This time I will succumb to futility and write some purely subjective sentences, some borrowed, some mine.

Paraphrasing Gadamer’s central thesis of hermeunetics, objectivity is not a suitable ideal for understanding art, because there exists no correct or wrong interpretation of art.

One of Balthus' palettes, Metropolitan Museum of New York
One of Balthus’ palettes, Metropolitan Museum of New York

Born in Paris in 1908, Balthus spent the bulk of his life secluded from the public, produced some 350 paintings and 1,600 drawings and died in February 2001, 10 days before his 93rd birthday.Balthus came from an intellectually privileged environment. His father was a Polish art historian, painter and critic whose close friends included Andre Gide and Pierre Bonnard. Two years after his parents separated in 1917, his mother became the lover of poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Under Rilke’s tutelage, the young Balthus began to flourish as an artist. In 1921, when he was only 12, Balthus published a book of 40 drawings with a preface by Rilke. (1)

Cartier Bresson: Balthus and his cat
Cartier Bresson: Balthus and his cat

It was Rilke who, “showed me nocturnal paths, giving me a taste for slipping through narrow passages to reach The Open.” This concept of The Open, an ethereal crossing to a place of mystery, became the sought after truth of his art. Balthus referred frequently to his Catholicism, his prayerful approach. I suspect he could have used other rites or religions to arrive at The Opening. His faith, while sincere, became a part of his craft, a device as much as a dedication. (2)

In 1949, Albert Camus provided an introductory essay for an exhibition of paintings by his friend … Balthus. “We do not know how to see reality,” wrote Camus of Balthus’s strange and sometimes sexually suggestive paintings of adolescent girls, “and all the disturbing things our apartments, our loved ones and our streets conceal.” (4)

Balthus saw himself as a laborer humbly approaching his craft. He spent years on each canvas, usually painting on three at once so that a dialogue would evolve between them. “I often insist on the necessity of prayer. To paint as one prays…to accede to silence and what is invisible in the world. I am not sure of being followed or understood…given that a majority of morons make so-called contemporary art, artists who know nothing about painting. But that doesn’t matter. Painting has always taken care of itself. In order to reach it even slightly, I’d say it must be ritually seized. To snatch what it can offer as a form of grace.” (2)

Balthus with Frederique Tison by the window at the Chateau de Chassy
Balthus with Frederique Tison by the window at the Chateau de Chassy, 1956

Solitaire (1943)

The most known painting that I saw at the Art Institute of Chicago is “Solitaire”.

In the Art Institute’s website I read: “Balthus is best known for his mysterious, emotionally charged scenes of adolescents, which often place the viewer in the position of a voyeur. Solitaire was painted in Switzerland, where the artist returned during World War II. It reveals the influence of such Old Masters as Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello in its monumentality as well as its awkwardness, both of which Balthus used to underscore the irrational and disconcerting nature of unconscious human behavior.”

patience-1943.jpg!HD
Balthus, Solitaire, 1943, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

In the next sentences I will try to deconstruct the painting with a view to revealing their underlying complexities and hidden contradictions.. Note: This is not an exercise in futility (I hope).

“Deconstruction, in other words, guards against the belief — a belief that has led to much violence — that the world is simple and can be known with certainty. It confronts us with the limits of what it is possible for human thought to accomplish.” (5)

Some of the key components of this painting are:  a young woman, cards (a game of “solitaire”), a chair, an armchair, a (jewel?) box (open),  a table, a candle, a window covered by a striped wallpaper, a folded curtain, a carpet.

Young women are consistently a subject in Balthus’ paintings. Points of interest: the tension of the muscles of the left leg as it extends backward in order to provide support to the leaning forward body. The hands. The horizontal face.

The light red – thick orange jacket. Compare the jacket to that of the “Sleeping girl”. By the way, the identity of the woman posing in the “Dormeuse” is not known, but she looks like the woman playing “solitaire”. The year is the same, 1943.

Balthus, Sleeping Girl, 1943, Tate Gallery, London
Balthus, Sleeping Girl, 1943, Tate Gallery, London

Solitaire: The aim of the game is to arrange the set of cards in order from ascending to descending, and sorted by suite. This is a game of luck. The probability of winning is low, which is good as the purpose of the game is to increase patience, a virtue that adds to one’s personality. (Wikipedia). I would like to suggest that Blathus is using the game metaphorically. He is one of the players of another game, one he plays with the spectator of the painting.

Balthus, Patience, 1954-1955
Balthus, Patience, 1954-1955

Armchair: a device of loose solitary confinement. Very often Balthus includes an armchair in his paintings (see “Girl and Cat”).

(Jewel) Box: In “solitaire” we see an open box on the armchair.  I cannot resist the temptation to recall Freud’s Dora: “Dora’s father wakes her up because the house is on fire. Dora gets dressed quickly to leave the house, but her mother wants to look for her jewel-case before going. Dora’s father exclaims that he will not let himself and his two children die to save his wife’s jewel case.”

Striped wallpaper: this appears to be a device of space manipulation.

Folded curtain: ITs curve complements the curved body of the player. It also covers something.

Carpet: Its beautiful patterns and colours introduce asymmetry in the picture. Something can always function in an unsettling way.

Balthus, Study for Solitaire, 1943
Balthus, Study for Solitaire, 1943

Japanese photographer Hisaji Hara has created a series of photographs inspired by Balthus’ paintings. (I thank the “arte facto” blog for the unveiling of Hara’s art).

 Balthus’s studies of girls in often stilted poses are certainly timeless in their strangeness, their evocation of a pre-adult world of dark childhood reverie. Now, Japanese photographer Hisaji Hara has made a series of images that meticulously recreate some of Balthus’s most famous paintings. Made between 2006 and 2011, they are beautiful in a quiet way, and give off not so much a sense of timelessness as of time stilled. Interestingly, given that they are photographs of a real young girl, they do not exude the same sinister suggestiveness of the originals. (4)
Hisaji Hara, Solitaire
Hisaji Hara, Solitaire

Artist Michelle Arnold Paine has published in her website a sketch of solitaire. She writes:

“I was particularly interested in Balthus’ close attention to the negative shapes – the spaces between the arms, between the torso and the table, etc. These are shapes of air — where there is no object, but just as important as the “positive” shapes (the objects in the painting).”

Michelle Arnold Paine's sketch of Balthus' Solitaire
Michelle Arnold Paine’s sketch of Balthus’ Solitaire

Diversion: Game of Cards (1950)

I copy from the highly informative text written by Paloma Alarcó and presented in the Thyssen Museum’s webpage (7):

“The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza Card Game is a canvas in large format painted between 1948 and 1950, when Balthus resumed painting with renewed energy after the war. It shows two youngsters, a boy and a girl, playing cards at a table on which a candlestick stands, inside a simple, stark room. The austerity, monumentality, geometry and colouring of the painting clearly denote Balthus’s admiration for the work of Piero della Francesca. In the scene the light that enters from the right-hand side of the room coldly illuminates various objects and adds to the mystery of the picture.

Balthus, Study for The Game of Cards, 1947
Balthus, Study for The Game of Cards, 1947

In Balthus’s paintings girls are queens and are therefore always portrayed as the winners. Boys normally play a more secondary role in the scene as impassive companions or rivals in games which they invariably lose. Although in the present painting the boy is prepared to cheat in order to win, the girl’s veiled smile shows that once again the norms governing Balthus’s world will prevail and she will be the winner in the end. The boy’s disjointed pose, which combines a frontal and profile view simultaneously, had already been used by Balthus in the illustrations forWuthering Heights. The obscure childhood world of the main characters in Emily Brontë’s work, on which the artist made a large series of drawings in 1933 that were published in 1935 in Minotaure, the Surrealists’ magazine, is the origin of much of Balthus’s mature work.”

Balthus, Game of Cards, 1948-1950, Thyssen Bornemisza Museum
Balthus, Game of Cards, 1948-1950, Thyssen Bornemisza Museum

Diversion: The Cardplayers (1973)

This work was painted in Rome when Balthus, born as Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, was director of the Académie de France in the Villa Medici. It is said that Balthus started the work after visiting a Kabuki performance in Japan. This form of theatre features re-enactments of historical events and highlights moral conflicts in the love between man and woman. Because women were forbidden from taking part in these performances, the female roles were played by male actors. This perhaps explains the androgynous appearance of the figure on the right.

Balthus, The Cardgame, 1973, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Balthus, The Cardgame, 1973, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Untitled (1972)

This drawing (Graphite and charcoal on tan elephant paper) is an interlude between solitaire and the girl and cat.

Balthus, Untitled, Art Institute of Chicago
Balthus, Untitled, 1972, Art Institute of Chicago

Girl and Cat (1937)

Sabine Rewald writes in her article “Balthus’s Thereses”:

“The painter’s finest portrayals of adolescents are his series of paintings from 1936 to 1939 for which young Therese Blanchard served as model. Therese and her brother Hubert were neighbors of Balthus at the Cour de Rohan, near the place de l’Odeon in Paris… Therese Blanchard also posed for Girl with a Cat of 1937 and its later, more masterly version Therese Dreaming of 1938 in the Gelman Collection. With her kneesock falling down and her sleeves pushed up, Therese in Girl with a Cat looks as if she has been called away from play. Her pale skin and turquoise, white, and red garments stand out against the harsh background of the painter’s studio, in which the fat tiger cat blends perceptibly. Balthus has imbued her quite innocent exhibitionism with suggestiveness. The erotic mood is heightened by the strict discipline of the composition.”

Balthus, Girl with Cat, Art Institute of Chicago - detail
Balthus, Girl and Cat, 1937, Art Institute of Chicago – detail

Notice the asymmetry of the pulled up slieves.

Balthus, Girl with Cat, Art Institute of Chicago - detail
Balthus, Girl and Cat, Art Institute of Chicago – detail

Notice the aymmetry of the socks, one rolled down, the other rolled up.

Balthus, Girl with Cat, Art Institute of Chicago - detail
Balthus, Girl and Cat, 1937, Art Institute of Chicago – detail

The mysterious cat.

Girl and Cat
Balthus, Girl and Cat, 1937, Art Institute of Chicago

Diversion: Therese dreaming (1938)

With closed eyes, Balthus’s pubescent model is lost in thought. Thérèse Blanchard, who was about twelve or thirteen at the time this picture was made, and her brother Hubert were neighbors of Balthus in Paris. She appears alone, with her cat, or with her brother in a series of eleven paintings done between 1936 and 1939.

Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1938, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1938, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Diversion: Therese (1938)

Balthus, Therese, 1938, Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, USA
Balthus, Therese, 1938, Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, USA

No matter how many times I look at these pictures, I always fell that it is the first time. There is surprise, there is mystery, the unknown is lurking in the face of the subject(s), behing the curtains, under the chairs, in the eues of the cats.

Frederique Tison at the Chateau de Chassy, 1956
Frederique Tison at the Chateau de Chassy, 1956

In the end, Balthus remained secretive, held true to his word: To know him, know his art. He would explain neither. And that ambiguity is probably best. Impossible anyway to explain the source of his ripening nudes, peculiar portraits and resplendent landscapes. “To go toward The Open,” he said, “to approach and sometimes attain it by snatching deferred moments, and then return to passing time.” (2)

“I detest the word ‘artist’ and find the word ‘creation’–so often used by those who call themselves artists–pretentious. As for me, I would simply call myself a craftsman. The word artist is synonymous with individualism and the assertion of one’s personality, two predominant notions in today’s society. Of course, people often say, ‘One must be oneself.’ But what is ‘oneself’? Who really knows?” Balthus: In His Own Words (6) 

Balthus in his studio at the Chateau de Chassy, 1956
Balthus in his studio at the Chateau de Chassy, 1956

Sources

1. “Vanished Splendors: A Memoir” By Balthus, Dan Tranberg

2. BALTHUS: ALCHEMIST OF VANISHING SPLENDOR, A non-review by J. STEFAN-COLE

3. Balthus vs. Hisaji Hara,  arte_facto [hereges perversões]

4. Hisaji Hara – review,  Michael Hoppen Contemporary London, Sean O’Hagan, The Observer

5. Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction, Mitchell Stephens, The New York Times Magazine, 1994

6. Balthus was the Bomb, cara walz studio notes

7. The Card Game, Thyssen – Bornemisza collection

2 comments

  1. εξαιρετική προσέγγιση…

    αυτή η παρουσίαση που έκανες στο Solitaire καμία σχέση με ματαιότητα δεν είχε…

    κι αυτός ο Balthus τι εκπλήξεις κρύβει σε καθε γωνιά των εργων του…

    από τα καλύτερα posts σου

  2. εξαιρετική προσέγγιση…

    αυτή η παρουσίαση που έκανες στο Solitaire καμία σχέση με ματαιότητα δεν είχε…

    κι αυτός ο Balthus τι εκπλήξεις κρύβει σε καθε γωνιά των εργων του…

    από τα καλύτερα posts σου

Comments are closed.