by Stanislas Klossowski De Rola
ISBN: 0810921197

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A Review of: Balthus: Stanislas Klossowski de Rola
by Olga Stein

Son of a Polish art historian, Erich Klossowski, and a Polish Jewish woman, Elizabeth (also known as Baladine) Dorothea, Balthazar (1908-2001) was exposed to artists and their work at an early age at his parents' salon in Paris. Later in life he came to insist on the title Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola. The Count' part remains questionable, especially since the artist had a penchant and talent for self-reinvention, but he did come to inhabit the Grand Chalet in Rossinire, situated between Gstaad and Montreux (Swiss Alps), an aristocratic dwelling which bolstered his claim to noble ancestry, and more importantly, afforded him the privacy he so prized for personal and artistic reasons.
Balthus kept to himself and his small circle of notable friends (writers, artists and clients). He avoided the probing public eye, perhaps because he wasn't who he claimed to be, but likely also because some of his work-his paintings of prepubescent girls in provocative poses-contravened conventional mores and gave some of the more conservative critics an opportunity to censor him.
There is a certain fascination with the sexuality of young girls, but Balthus's works are more indicative of a fascination with the voyeur in all of us and the flimsiness of this particular taboo. Or maybe, in the vein of Edouard Manet with his then shocking Luncheon on the Grass (1863), depicting a nude woman with two well dressed gentlemen, he was simply reasserting his artist's license, the freedom to determine subject matter for aesthetic purposes of his own making. What cannot be doubted is Balthus's artistic integrity; one must examine his oeuvre as a whole-his landscapes, still lifes, and portraits-to see that his overriding goal was always to make a thing of beauty.
Balthus contains 108 full colour, superbly reproduced, plates, but no analysis or commentary. The artist, we are told by Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, his son, was always dismissive of anyone's effort to describe his work. This makes the reviewer's job more difficult, but thankfully, not impossible. We learn, for instance, that in order to improve his skills, the self-taught Balthus copied Poussin and Chardin at the Louvre, and Pierro della Francesca and Masaccio in Italy. He seems to have picked up exactitude in draughtsmanship from Pierro della Francesca (1414-1492), one of the first of the old masters to apply mathematical principles to perspective, and one of the first to treat the human form as an assemblage of basic geometric forms to be streometrically represented. In Pierro della Francesca's work there is also a discernable emphasis on the inner life of the subject, conveyed subtly through gestures and glances rather than dramatic facial expressions. Many of Balthus's paintings feature girls sleeping, faces and bodies relaxed, so that we're literally given a glimpse the most inner of inner life. From the short-lived genius, Masaccio (1401-1428), Balthus may have acquired his taste for tonal uniformity. There are no harsh contrasts in Balthus's work between light and dark. Instead, he created a rich palette of transitional hues. Consequently, many of his canvasses appear somewhat dark and monochromatic. Jean-Baptiste Simon Chardin (1699-1779) was a master of still lifes. Balthus's poetic treatment of common household objects and kitchenware in his own still lifes, his desire to elevate the ordinary could very well have been Chardin's influence. Nicolas Poussin (1593-1665) was a classicist' who adhered to rigorous principles when it came to the representation of landscape. Landscapes had to be "idealized", precise compositions. Balthus own Paysage de Champrovent (1942-45) seems to recall the perfection and calming splendour of Poussin's paintings of the Italian countryside.
Such comparisons ultimately do not amount to much more than guesswork. To study Balthus is to realize that he was open to all manner of influences. His interest in decorative patterns of fabric, wall coverings and textiles reflects the preoccupations of Henri Matisse, and there is little doubt that he borrows significantly from the impressionists Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir. And there were other sources of inspiration. There is a curious similarity between Balthus's La chambre (1952-54) and the The Nightmare, by the Romantic painter John Henry Fuseli's (1741-1825). In Balthus's painting, the cat, which resembles the grinning devil of The Nightmare is not sitting on the sleeping woman's chest but on a table by the wall. It is a benign figure, and only hints at something menacing. Instead, the element of evil inheres in the dwarf-like, spiteful-looking woman, whose sharp drawing away of the curtain suggests malicious intent towards the sensual, naked girl made vulnerable by deep sleep. The danger to the young woman stems not from the supernatural but from the human. This is typical of Balthus. He borrows, but he transforms until the pictorial and narrative qualities of his art become uniquely his own.

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