"Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.." ~Balthus
[an earlier post edited and republished]
I recently revisited the only Balthus housed at the National Gallery of Victoria, his Nude with Cat (1949). At less then a meter wide, what it lacked in scale it delivered in quality of experience. These are not classical forms and the interplay between his subjects testifies to this. The absence of any clear narrative, ambiguous spatial relationships, gestures and glances intrigue me.
In his Nu de Profil (1973), I enjoy Balthus irreverence for traditional rules of perspective, anatomy and composition. Nothing about this girl's posture appears natural and yet she has all of the dignity, poise and strength of pre-classical statuary.
Here is a detail from one of my favourites, Le Passage du Commerce Saint-André, (1952-4).
The figures in it beguile me; their interplay, their seductive yet restrained theatricality. I am moved by his capacity for reshaping and interpreting the world of his experience and imagination. Balthus had an uncanny sense for creating tension by disrupting our sense on relationships; those between his subjects, and the pictorial ones that govern the conventions of space, light, form and representation. His painting has deep-rooted connections to the iconic and religious imagery of pre-Renaissance Europe. The figures in this painting inhabit the same, and yet their own, world. This painting alludes not just to the physical world, but to the interior lives of its subjects.
This celebrates and affirms the strength, uncertainty and enigma of human relationships in a world where the structures and institutions of our time continually seek to define and regulate them. There's a little madness and mystery about these paintings that works to dispel any stale air of social convention and complacency.
So it's not whether painting has anything of relevance left to say to us. It's whether or not we're listening.
Balthus the Painter on YouTube:
Balthus: Works | Inteview Miek Bal, Ediciones Polígrafa, S.A. 2008
Balthus Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Thames & Hudson (rev edn), 2001