PRINT Summer 2001



BALTHAZAR KLOSSOWSKI, OR BALTHUS, or the Count de Rola, as he preferred to be known later in life, died February 18 at the age of 92. His passing did not go unmarked: U2 frontman Bono sang a tribute at his funeral, and critics Michael Kimmelman and Jed Perl wrote appropriately admiring eulogies, if colored by a certain defensiveness about Balthus’s historical position. Other commentators, such as Linda Nochlin (interviewed on National Public Radio), could not be moved to praise, even by his demise. Speaking ill of the dead is no more popular in the art world than in the rest of our culture, but wildly mixed feelings about Balthus were reflected in his obituaries, as well as in the reviews that greeted Nicholas Fox Weber’s alternately fawning and hostile 1999 biography of the artist. Many observers seem starstruck by Balthus’s aristocratic, castle-dwelling persona, complete with literary pedigree (Rilke was his mother’s lover), androgynous svelteness, ubiquitous smoking jackets, adoring younger wife, and butlers; others dismiss him as a pedestrian pedophile (including Linda Fairstein, head district attorney in the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit, whom Weber interviewed extensively for his book).

If writers and critics seem unanimous in their ambivalence toward the Paris-born painter, artists (along with collectors) make up a sizable majority of Balthus’s fan base. Some love him for his connection to artistic traditions, precedents, and conventions that have all but vanished; more appreciate what he represents in late-modern culture: a perverse kind of artistic freedom. Painting in a figurative style, making decidedly conservative formal choices, he has come to represent the autonomy not of art, but of the artist; he’s autonomous not as an anarchist (like Pissarro or Barnett Newman), but as an aristocrat. This perceived individualism is ironic, because the interest in the subject matter (i.e., adolescent girls) that has made him so controversial seems to be largely determined by social forces—our entire culture casts an admiring eye at very young women. But artists tend to see Balthus as painting what he wanted to paint, irrespective of historical imperatives or narratives—an enviable (if improbable) goal. I talked to a handful of contemporary figures about Balthus, both the paintings and the man himself.

LUCIAN FREUD: When I first came to Paris in 1946, I saw something of Balthus, who was very kind and generous to me. He spoke English perfectly and very slowly. He did everything very slowly. I remarked on his green tartan tie, and he explained, “Actually, I am a Gordon.” We often lunched with Marie-Laure de Noailles at her house in the Place des Etats-Unis. She always addressed him as “my pretty little rat.”

He asked me to take a painting of his, of a little girl at the top of a ladder, to England where he had sold it. “How about the customs?” I asked. “The customs,” said Balthus, “will look at this painting like a cow looks at a train.” But customs liked that painting very much.

LISA YUSKAVAGE: Balthus is a window onto the European painting tradition at a time when contemporary pictures seem to reject locating a figure in space as a psychological occasion. He’s ahistorical, which is exactly what so many people like or don’t like about him. When I was discovering Balthus, I was also discovering Lucian Freud, and I thought, nobody’s doing this in America, or at least if they’re doing it, they aren’t accepted here. When I think of postwar American realists, they never gave up the various painting traditions from the nineteenth century, but they were banished to the basement by abstraction. Modernism and its self-critical way of approaching painting was very powerful here. Balthus’s lack of self-consciousness is what is so appealing.

A problem I have with a lot of art, like much “new-media art,” is that its references are all from the past twenty years and too easy to see. Even though Balthus references art history, it’s more complicated—you can’t quite figure out why a Balthus looks the way it does. When I look at his work, I see a painting I’ve never seen before. Everything comes from somewhere, but I like things that seem absolute, or, in Balthus’s case, that seem to spring from nowhere. It’s about looking at something. Artists like it not because it’s a brainy thing, but because it’s an eye thing.

DAVID SALLE: I’m interested in Balthus as a lens through which to look at Courbet—the color, the structure, the interiors seem to come right out of Courbet. Balthus is like Courbet without the masculinity: Courbet is a painter of women and dogs, Balthus is a painter of women and cats. There’s a component of European modernism through Picasso that is still nineteenth-century painting. In a way, even Picasso after the late 1910s is looking back as much as looking forward, and that’s what you can see in Balthus—painting without the modernism. There’s a certain phenomenon among Europeans of his generation, of being an artist of the highest rank without living in the “message center,” without participating in those mainstream dialogues. That’s a premodern ideal. Is it possible today? I don’t know.

The more erotic Balthus’s paintings, the better they are as art. Despite his denial, he’s someone who addresses eroticism head on. He theatricalizes the eroticism of Courbet; I’m at once drawn to it and suspicious of it in my own work. Did he know that he was that close to kitsch? If he knew, he wouldn’t have come so close.

JOHN CURRIN: I didn’t like Balthus at all when I was in college, because he seemed to be the refuge of bad painters. If they weren’t doing Hopper, they’d be doing vaguely metaphysical, psychological painting along the lines of Balthus or de Chirico. I changed my mind about him in the late ’80s, when I was trying to stop being an abstract artist. I had ripped off the abstract Schnabel and Polke and Richter in grad school, and I realized it was more interesting to start over and try to make everything up and be a figurative painter. I saw a Courbet show in Brooklyn, and it changed my life. I wanted to get away from the layering of different images, which is what figurative painting in the ’80s had become, and going nuts over Courbet opened me up to Balthus.

Everyone is so afraid to put things behind figures, to have a picture going on, because there’s so much bad painting that tries to do so; that’s why you see so much work with figures painted against monochrome grounds. It’s all based on photographs, and it’s all terrible. Balthus has an aristocratic acceptance of painting from life, of disdaining flatness, or the recessed flatness of someone like Johns. People like that second kind of painting––it flatters their ability to think abstractly, in the sense of “you know this is a symbolic representation, and not actually a wall.” Balthus doesn’t think that way; he says, Why would you want to eat that shit if you could have this? I’m nostalgic for that way of thinking: “Young girls? I don’t give a damn. I like small feet, I like my fabulous house with cool stuff in it.” He accepts the fact that his preferences are what’s special about his art. He has an old-fashioned idea of what an artist’s style is; it’s not a whole set of reactions to history, or a big idea.

In Jeune fille au chat [1937], the real center of the painting is not the underwear, it’s the foot. Of course, it is the underwear—you’re going to look between the girl’s legs, and it gives you something to look at. It’s the sort of thing I used to think of as a red herring for people who want art to be about something. When I made paintings of women with big basketball breasts, they were for those people. It’s about repression as an engine of creativity. I don’t think you want to have sex with the young girl, but the way she’s in possession of her sex is the way Balthus is in possession of his talent; her mystery is his mystery. He possesses his talent, but he doesn’t really use it in the modernist sense, where you make every aspect of it self-conscious.

De Chirico is a better painter than Balthus because his paintings have a real sense of the end, that it’s 1913 and everything is going to blow up. Balthus’s paintings are more like the first time you’re alone in Grandma’s house: They’re creepy, and they’ll never stop being creepy. The confidence you see is also the confidence without which fascism couldn’t have occurred. That intense energy European culture poured into making amazing things just got creepier and creepier until it turned evil. In some ways, I can’t enjoy Balthus’s paintings for this reason—in the end, the fascination is their European-ness at the point where that starts to become a bad thing.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.