A Modern Master

Balthus

by Jean Leymarie
Rizzoli International (Skira), 150, 66 illus pp., $100.00

For over thirty years, from, say, 1912 to 1945, people who wanted to be “in the movement” used to maintain that the subject of a picture was unimportant, and, if presented too insistently, positively harmful. Aesthetic satisfaction was achieved by shapes and color alone. This extraordinary proposition, which was unprecedented in the history of art, was to some extent a reaction against the conventional naturalism of the nineteenth century, and it may even be seen as part of that widespread rejection of traditional form which was thought to have influenced the music of Stravinsky and the prose of Joyce. The situation was both unhistorical and contrary to experience, but it was borne out by the work of a majority of painters for whom a subject was no more than a pretext for a piece of picture making. There was, however, one considerable artist who never disguised the importance that he attached to his subjects, a Pole named Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, who painted under the name of Balthus.

This name may not be familiar to many lovers of painting in the United States, where modern art has been so warmly and perceptively appreciated; still less, of course, is it known to the small and insular body of art lovers in England. One reason is that Balthus is a man of aristocratic independence, who throughout his life has shunned publicity and strenuously opposed any attempt to “write him up.” The book under review is the first ever to be written about him, and I can imagine that he agreed to it only when he saw the splendid form in which the house of Skira was going to present him. The forty-eight color plates are of excellent quality, and the author is an old friend, who writes of him with a moving warmth. At last we are able to form an estimate of this great and fascinating painter.

The first thing that strikes one is the unexpected range of his work. I confess that I had thought of him primarily as the painter of female nudes. The first work of his with which I was familiar was entitled, with contemptuous brevity, The Room. It shows a naked woman lying extended on a chaise longue, in front of a window, from which an evil looking dwarf has just drawn back the curtain. It is a disturbing work. The dwarf’s action is a kind of assault. But the actual painting of this curious subject is careful, and almost academic. Balthus has never emphasized the strangeness of his vision by technical tricks or distortion. At first sight he looks like a conventional and even academic painter, in the style of nineteenth-century naturalism.

The selection of plates in this book supports this view. There are a number of naturalistic landscapes, remarkable only for the skill with which they are painted. I can see nothing in them that could not have been done by, shall we say, Ford Madox Brown, and the author’s attempt …

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