Nu au miroir
The memory of the transition
A little girl watches herself in the mirror, in the hush of a bare place with motionless atmosphere, almost suspended in an instant lasting eternally. She is metaphor of the beauty that takes conscience of itself, as if before the mirror had been just a mirror, until that indefinite moment in which one discovers the unknown and unexpected dimension of the change.
Rilke became the first artistic mentor of Balthus: he perceived his talent and took care to publish and write the foreword of the first book of the Artist with the illustrations that he realized at the age of eleven; entitled "MITSOU Histoire d'un chat", this book, with the use of forty drawings, tells the story of a boy and a cat, the darling pet for Balthus.
"MITSOU Histoire d'un chat" ("MITSOU Story of a cat")
One of the illustrations of the book published in 1921
Only sixteen years old, Balthus started to make copies of artists like Poussin and Piero della Francesca.
Balthus never received academical teachings, but he only studied by himself the great masters of the past he admired. Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, and even Cézanne and other modern painters like Matisse, can be found in his paintings.
This mixture between ancient and modern can be seen in paintings like "La chambre turque" (picture #1); the painting represents his second wife Setsuko Ideta, of Japanese origins, that was a painter too.
He always stood away from artistic movements and his contemporaries; he blamed the art society of the crescent indifference for the elegant manual skills requested by classic painting, which he considered the essential dimension of the artistic expression.
Balthus was encouraged to pursue his art by artists like Pierre Bonnard and André Derain; he knew many famous personages such as André Breton, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray.
"Picasso visited me. He said to me: «You are the only painter of your generation for which i have an interest. The others try to play as a Picasso. You never.»"
He had important relations with Italy, that he loved since he visited it in youth a first time to admire the classic masters. For sixteen years he directed the Accademia Francese in Rome at Villa Medici. He knew artists such as Federico Fellini, Renato Guttuso and Alberto Giacometti.
Particularly he tied a friendship with Giacometti, for which he used the following words:
"He was a brother, a friend. That's why i keep here (note: in his studio) a photograph portraying him. I don't know who made it or where it comes from, but in this way i work under the protection of Alberto, under his benevolent gaze."
The works of Balthus have a particular attention for the light effects that pervade them: the Artist was patiently waiting and carefully choosing the ideal light for painting.
Gifted with sensibility, he was capable of enthusiasm for the evanescent atmosphere that can bring the twilight and to be fascinated by its delicate chromaticism.
His paintings portray real scenes, whose same reality essence radiates an implicit symbology that confers a metaphysical atmosphere, nearly surreal; notwithstanding that, Balthus disliked Surrealism that had risen in that epoch and that wanted to strike right the lyricism of the classic painting.
"Le passage du Commerce Saint-Andre"
("The passage of Commerce Saint-Andre")
oil on canvas, 1952-54
The Artist gave himself the name of Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, in honour of the lineage of the father that would have been a descendant of polish nobles. The steadiness with which he supported his own ideas conduced him to believe that Art was a matter reserved to the few ones that are capable to comprehend it, and not a thing for the masses.
Balthus had a peaceful and disposable temperament, but solemn when talking about Art, for which he had a feeling almost mystical, and to which he conferred an initiatory symbolism, as if he was the depositary of a precious truth to hand down to the eternity.
The Artist was a very reserved person and he was only saying that his artworks are talking about him. For all his life he stated to be "a painter of whom nothing is known".
Balthus converted to Catholicism, feeling himself deeply Christian and being an admirer of John Paul II. He declared himself as not attracted by the seductions of the modern society and the cult of materialism.
In fact he preferred to dwell in isolated residences, where to live a retired life with his own beloveds. In this way he succeeded in the finding of the necessary serenity to realize his paintings, to which he dedicated himself with extreme calm and devotion. In Italy he dwelt in the castle of Montecalvello, a small village at nearly twenty kilometres from Viterbo.
"To paint is a way to accede to the mystery of God, to extract a little of the splendour of His Kingdom, to succeed in the capture of a shared light. This is not a vain desire, but a humble one. This is the reason why i love Italy. When i visited it for the first time, as a fifteen or sixteen years old boy, immediately i loved the country for the kindness of the people and its delicate landscape. I always considered Italy an enchanted land. Saturated with spirit."
"A painting rewards our eyes from each window of Montecalvello. A painting is just like a prayer: an innocence that is finally grabbed, a moment snatched from the disaster of the time that passes away. It is captured immortality."
In 1934 Balthus had his first personal exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris; in that occasion he produced the famous painting "La leçon de guitare", that even today provokes indignation for the naked pubis of the young girl portrayed, together with a brutal content, which was an exception for the painter. In the same year Balthus was saved from a suicide attempt, maybe caused by sentimental problems with his fiancée.
"A certain American journalist said he found my works pornographic. What does he mean? Everything today is pornographic. The advertising is pornographic. You see a young woman putting on a beauty product as if she would have an orgasm. I never created anything pornographic. Maybe except 'The guitar lesson' ".
"La leçon de guitare"
("The guitar lesson")
oil on canvas, 1934
Balthus never accepted the interpretation of his works in a pornographic key. The frequent choice of adolescent models was motivated by the wish to capture that indefinite moment of the transition to adult age.
On another point it is not clear why Art should hide from the sight a part of the nature, putting a sentence of immorality to the Creation and to confine minors into a ghetto where one cannot have the right to be part of the reality, subjugated to the coercive moralism that cloaks with sinfulness the existence of the persons.
"I always refused the interpretation that my girls are the product of an erotic imagination. To say that they have to misunderstand the particular care i have for their slow transformation from an angelic condition to that of a young woman, for searching and capturing the moment of the passage".
"Nu devant la cheminée"
("Nude in front of the fireplace")
oil on canvas, 1955
The models of Balthus radiates a big serenity, a calmness of the soul illuminated by a solemn and glorious comfort. The Artist plays the role of the painter that portrays that idyllic moment without disturb, like a cat, with due respect to keep the charm.
"Somebody pretended that my naked girls were erotic. I never painted with this intention, that it would have made them anecdotical, mere objects of gossip. I precisely wanted the opposite, to surround them with an halo of silence and profoundness."
With these paintings Balthus, either candidly or provocatively, put the pure and simple truth in front of the morality of some consciences, that can sometimes have conflictual reactions, between Self and Super-Self.
"Everybody is excited because you can see the underpants of the girls... The problem is in the desires and interests of the beholder, not mine."
oil on canvas, 1938
Nicholas Fox Weber, a biographer, was an estimator of Balthus until he started to paint nudes of adolescents; from then on he almost cut his relationship with the Artist.
Weber then realized a very harsh biography of Balthus, where he tries to psychoanalyse the painter through his artworks with the only purpose to demonstrate how much he was a liar, a lascivious and a sadistic narcissist.
On his way Weber, to describe the girls painted by Balthus, uses despicable appellatives that are certainly more suitable to a misogynistic masculinist or to a sex-phobic, or paradoxically to a sex-maniac.
"A worn and exhausted little bitch", "an angry whore", Weber talking about "Alice in the mirror".
"Alice dans le miroir"
("Alice in the mirror")
oil on canvas, 1933
Balthus, during his long life, realized around 350 artworks and thousands of drawings, to which he dedicated himself with rare care, prolonging the making of many paintings for years, until he felt that nothing could have been changed.
He lived a big part of his existence at the Grand Chalet of Rossinière, in Switzerland, painting with the aid of his wife Setsuko, his daughter and together his beloved cats.
At his funeral took part many admirers and famous personages. The French president Jaques Chirac said to have heard about the death of Balthus with particular commotion, and that "Balthus totally dedicated himself to his art, that he wanted to be timeless" and describing him as "one of the most eminent artists of his times".
I consider this painting one of the most meaningful of the exclusive research of Balthus, with which he wanted to capture the time of transition, that moment when the cognition of beauty takes form, becomes conscious. Balthus firmly defended with artistic sense the right to picture the nakedness without the vice of moralism and sin. His method of painting resolves an epochal transition, a missing link that connects ancient and modern: in a period when traditional figurative has been put in a corner, he succeeded to keep alive the interest for great classics, to which he gave new life.