Year, Birthplace 1908, France
Year, Place of death 2001, Switzerland
Nationality France
Balthus was born into a family of Polish aristocrats. From childhood he was in close contact with the art world: his father was a painter, critic and art historian who wrote a monograph on Honoré Daumier and his mother was also a painter. His eldest brother was the painter and writer Pierre Klossowski. During his adolescence, which she spent in France and Switzerland, he rubbed shoulders with writers such as André Gide and Reiner Maria Rilke, whose works he illustrated. He knew painters such as Pierre Bonnard, whose paintings of 1930s Paris influenced him (views of the Luxembourg Gardens). In 1926, during a stay in Tuscany, he copied the frescoes of Piero della Francesca, Ucello, Masaccio and Masolino. He divided his time between Switzerland, Germany and France, holding his first exhibition in Berlin in 1929. In 1934 he presented his first work at the Galerie Pierre (owned by Pierre Loeb) Gallery in Paris, a series of paintings that displayed a more personal style and themes: scenes of daily life, such as La Rue [1933], and interior scenes and portraits. These works bore a relationship not only with the fantastic realism practiced by the German artists George Groz, Otto Dix and Max Beckman but also with the Parisian Forces Nouvelles group (George Rohner, Pierre Tal-Coat, Robert Humblot, Jean Lasne, Alfred Pellan, Henri Héraut, Henry Jannot), which militated in favour of realism as a reaction against the explosive wave of abstraction and surrealism. The teaching of Derain, whom he met in 1933, is also evident. In Paris, Balthus painted the little alleyways of Saint-Germain de Prés, where he lived from 1933 onwards and from which there emanates an atmosphere of strangeness, suspended time and disquiet. At the time, his portraits were considered to be shocking. Paintings such as Alice, La Leçon de Guitare [The Guitar Lesson], or La Toilette de Cathy [Cathy’s Toilette] depict the passage from childhood to adolescence and evoke female homosexuality. In 1932, Balthus’ paintings caught the attention of Antonin Artaud, who was then an acquaintance of the painter. The writer was the first to discuss Balthus’ work in journals such as the N.R.F [Nouvelle Revue française] and in 1935 he asked him to design the scenery for The Cenci. In 1933, André Breton and other surrealists visited his studio but were disappointed by his naturalism. However, they could not remain indifferent to the scandal of the 1934 exhibition and the eroticism of the scenes that he painted (La Toilette de Cathy was shown behind a curtain at the rear of the gallery): they reproduced La Rue in the journal Documents 34, making Balthus a compagnon de route. However, he was too independent to be associated with the group. His 1938 exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York marked the start of the international career of an artist who is now reckoned to be one of the great painters of the twentieth century. Recognition, however, would take some time in coming due to the unclassifiable nature of his work in relation to the avant-garde movements both in terms of his personal world and his style. It was not until the 1960s that his work was shown in a series of retrospective exhibitions around the world. At the request of his friend André Malraux, Balthus served as the director of the Villa Médici in Rome between 1961 and 1976. Balthus considered himself to be a ‘worker’ rather than an artist. As he said: ‘Art is a trade. (…) For a long time the notion of avant-garde in painting has meant nothing. False art lovers, speculators, buy what they cannot understand, afraid of missing out on a find. This is the great misunderstanding of modern art. This phenomenon has favoured the emergence of the dictatorship of non-figurative art, to which the no less repulsive expressionist, surrealist and minimalist dictatorships are opposed, all making equal promises of unpleasant rebirths… When I paint I don't seek to express myself but the world’ (interview with Veronique Prat, February 1998, Le Figaro). AC