Balthus – the artist, his work, provocation

The exhibition “Balthus” can be seen at the Fondation Beyeler. I saw some of his works in Cologne in 2007 and maybe I’ll even be able to visit the show in Basel. I still have time until January 1, 2019. I read the catalogue, which was kindly sent to me by the Fondation Beyeler, with great interest. A nice occasion to take a closer look at the artist and his reception.


I had to laugh a little when I read somewhere that he was an exceptional phenomenon also because he reached the 21st century as a master of classical modernism. Balthus died in 2001 and somehow it suits him that this dimension of time is mentioned. But of course you have to remember this artist because there are many other things to know about him. And by that I don’t mean the scandals that his paintings also caused. The discussion about how to deal with it overshadows the reception of his works considerably. Rightly? Below I have dedicated a section to this topic. But who else was this Balthus?

Born in 1908, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola was the son of a Polish aristocrat and a Jewish-German artist who grew up in an intellectual home. The parents’ marriage failed and their mother teamed up with Rainer Maria Rilke. There the young Balthasar was eleven years old. Through the influence of the poet, who also invented the artist’s name Balthus, the young artist achieved his first successes, and he never really contradicted the rumours that Rilke was his biological father. Apparently he liked to create a certain mysterious aura around himself. This also included the emphasis that his birthday, 29 February, had taken him out of the ordinary course of time. In general, the aspect of time seems to have played an important role for him. In his paintings, too, it seems that it has stopped for a moment.

There are some remarkable anecdotes in the artist’s life. For example, I was touched by the love story with his first wife – Antoinette de Watteville – who only gave in to his wooing when Balthus had some initial successes. Later he even became director of the Villa Medici in Rome. And he had contact to many music greats. Bowie was a fan – the Thin White Duke could also have come from a Balthus painting. Mick Jagger and other pop stars visited the painter in his Swiss domicile, a former hotel.

Balthus, the king of cats – also a mysterious story based on an early experience. Mitsou was the name of the stray cat that had run to the young Balthasar and soon disappeared again. Balthus translated this experience into numerous drawings – a first success as an artist followed.

His work

It is the time of the New Objectivity, into which works by Balthus fit optically at any rate quite well. Also his enthusiasm for Piero della Francesca’s painting is not something completely absurd in the art of those years. One recalls, for example, Otto Dix, who loved the fine painting of Lucas Cranach and adapted it for his art. They were all looking for something new, and sometimes they would insure themselves of the old in order to achieve something of their own.

The connection to the subconscious, the proximity to Freud’s sexual drive – there is enough overlap with the surrealist tendencies in Balthus’ work. “I make surrealism à la Courbet,” he described it. In other words, there is less magic than much more realism in his painting. You can feel his proximity to the theatre in the structure of many of his works. In the 30s and 40s he created stage sets and some of this aesthetic can also be felt in his paintings. Especially with works like “Passage du Copmmerce-Saint-André” one discovers a lot of it. This work is also one of my favourite paintings by Balthus. It has a very special charisma, the figures seem to be captured in a special moment. As if they were waiting for salvation. Each of them with a special secret that has to be deciphered. Wim Wenders spoke very beautifully about the picture in this video.

At this point I’d like to point out that I don’t want to depict art in this blog post because I find the effort too great to delete it from the post afterwards.

It is also interesting to note that Balthus greatly appreciated Struwwelpeter. This subliminal cruelty and danger in the stories there – a little of it also appears in his pictures. Especially what could happen out of boredom is waiting! There one remembers Alice, who falls into the rabbit hole out of pure boredom. Balthus also talks about the dreamlike passing of the secret things in his pictures.

The provocation

Picked up time. With this title the Museum Ludwig showed a show of 25 of his works in 2007. I remember how we talked to our colleagues about “Thérèse, dreaming”. The voices were – as they are today – very controversial. I was very aware of the problem, because of course the young model is depicted here in a pose that has a very clear connotation with sexual fantasies.

The picture in which Thérèse Blanchard presents herself to the viewer on a chair is also shown in Basel. One sees the panties of the eleven-year-olds and suspects the breasts under the thin blouse. In front of her, on the floor, a cat slurps milk from a plate. Thérèse was painted several times by Balthus, she lived next to his studio and was probably relaxed enough to be painted by him. With this and similar paintings, Balthus deliberately wanted to provoke and break taboos in order to draw attention to himself. But he was also interested in this strange period between childhood and adulthood. As an artist, he is not alone in this. Already in the 19th century there was a great fascination for the aesthetics of adolescents. Last but not least, Lewis Carroll is one of the most famous representatives with his Alice. For the artists of the avant-garde of the 20th century, proximity to their underage models was a matter of course. From today’s point of view this is certainly very problematic!