Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (February 29, 1908 – February 18, 2001), known as Balthus, was a Polish-French modern artist. He is known for his erotically charged images of pubescent girls, but also for the refined, dreamlike quality of his imagery.
Throughout his career, Balthus rejected the usual conventions of the art world. He insisted that his paintings should be seen and not read about, and he resisted any attempts made to build a biographical profile until the later years of his life, taking part in a series of dialogues with the neurobiologist Semir Zeki which were published in 1995 as La Qûete de l'essentiel.
Balthus grew up in an art-world environment, with frequent visits to their family household by famous artists and writers, including the historical MAP figure and homosexual/MAP ally Andre Gide, and Jean Cocteau who has been described as a 'modern pederast' by historian Kadji Amin. Balthus' great love was for a young girl, Rose Alice Antoinette de Watteville, who was from a wealthy, influential aristocratic family. They first met in 1924 when she was 12 years of age and he was 19. Like Erwin Schrodinger's romantic and sexual interest in Felicie Krauss, the social standing of the female's parents was a great obstacle for men who lacked prestigious family lineage. Antoinette's parents were unimpressed by Balthus for this reason, and their relationship was confined to letter writing for many years.
Much to the horror of Balthus, Antoinette married a diplomat in 1934 and so as not to upset her husband she asked Balthus to stop writing to her. This was too much to take in for Balthus: he was devastated and suffered what was termed an emotional breakdown as well as an attempted suicide. He virtually gave up painting for a year, and his mood only lightened when she started to write to him again.
Finally, in Bern on April 2nd 1937, she married Balthus. She would go on to model for paintings which include eroticism and nudity such as Cathy Dressing (1933), The White Skirt (1937) completed shortly after marriage, and portraits like the still-life Girl in Green and Red (1944) where she is depicted as a teenager despite being 32 years of age at the time. Balthus had two children from this marriage, Stanislas (born 1942) and Thaddeus Klossowski (born 1944), who have published books on their father and the letters by their parents. Balthus and Antoinette separated amicably in 1947, and Balthus went on to marry a Japanese woman Setsuko Ideta, whom he first met when she was a 19 year-old, first-year student at a Tokyo University while Balthus was 54. The couple married on October 3rd 1967 until Balthus' death, giving birth to 2 children - a son Fumio (born 1968) who died at 2 years-old, and a daughter Harumi (born 1973) who survived. Setsuko works as a painter and is honorary president of the Balthus Foundation.
Balthus' paintings of young girls
Balthus painted and sometimes attempted to exhibit paintings of young females in poses or clothing which may be felt to be erotic, and sometimes included nudity. This part of his legacy attracted considerable attention and discussion.
After 1935, Balthus first caught sight of Thérèse Blanchard she was 11 years of age and, having approached the family, Thérèse agreed to model for him. She was used as a model more than any other person in Balthus' life, appearing in many paintings including Thérèse with Cat (1937). In this painting, her white underpants are visible to the viewer.
- The Victim (1939 – 1946) - a large painting of a naked young female led across a basic bed, is often thought to be a response to the suffering of the 2nd World War period. I.e. - Is she merely asleep or is she dead?
- Thérèse Dreaming (1938) - featuring the now 13 year old Thérèse, she sits similarly to the pose in Thérèse with Cat (1937), but is looking away from the viewer instead of directly at them. Of this painting, Sabine Rewald wrote in her book Balthus, Cats and Girls:
...she appears the epitome of dormant sexuality. Her white lace-trimmed slip surrounds her legs like a paper cornucopia wrapped around a bunch of flowers. The cat lapping milk from a saucer serves as another tongue in cheek erotic metaphor...
- By far the most controversial and notorious painting by Balthus was one he completed in 1934 entitled The Guitar Lesson (1934). It depicts a dominating and women, the music teacher, and her young female student. As one website described it:
The music lesson has been halted. A guitar lies on the floor and the woman has thrown the girl across her lap and pulled her black dress up over her waist. The fingers of the teacher’s left hand dig into the upper part of the girl’s inner thigh. It is as if the teacher is strumming a human guitar. The girl lies there, naked from her navel to her knees. The lower parts of her legs are covered by white socks. The music teacher has grabbed a chunk of the young girl’s long hair and is yanking her head downwards. To save herself from falling and in an attempt to alleviate the pain caused by her hair being pulled, the girl has grabbed the collar of the music teacher’s grey dress which uncovers the woman’s full right breast. Her nipple juts out which indicates to us that the teacher is sexually aroused by what she is doing.
The painting was sold and went through various hands, being exhibited only once in 1977, at Pierre Matisse’s 57th Street gallery in New York where for the one month period of its display it caused a sensation. The press, reviewers and art critics all wrote about the painting and it's sensitive nature meant it was never shown again after being sold back into private hands.
The model for this painting was Laurence Bataille (1930–86), daughter of the noted philosopher Georges Bataille and later a practicing psychoanalyist. She also may be the subject of Nude on a Chaise Longue (1950) and was sketched in portrait by Balthus in 1947 when she was 17 years of age. A writer for the New Yorker said their relationship was "frankly carnal", but we are not yet aware of clear evidence to support a relationship involving sexual contact.