Balthus Paintings | A Primal Silence

“Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures..” ~Balthus

I have spent several hours trying to understand the sense of intrigue I have about the works of Balthus (1908-2001).

I recently revisited the only Balthus housed at the National Gallery of Victoria, his Nude with Cat (1949). Having poured over stronger examples of his work in art books I was not sure what to expect of this painting, however, at less then a meter wide, what it lacked in scale it delivered in quality of experience. Moving eyes over the surface, I admit that I cannot get closer to it through reason or analysis; these are not classical forms and the interplay between his human subjects (and animal, in this case), testify to this. It’s those aspects of his painting which most elude me that keep me guessing. The absence of any clear narrative, ambiguous spatial relationships, gestures and glances.

A couple of other favourites:

Nu de profil 1973-77

Nu de profil 1973-77

In his Nu de Profil (1973), I am most taken with Balthus’ calculated irreverence for the traditional rules of perspective, anatomy and composition. Nothing about this girls posture appears natural and yet she has all of the dignity, poise and strength of pre-classical statuary. With so many of his works containing solitary figures, I am intrigued by them as meditations on self-reflection, and his use of visual gestures and devices (such as a mirror) so as “to plumb the furthest depths of their underlying beings”, as the artist himself once stated.

This next image is a detail from one of my favourites, Le Passage du Commerce Saint-André, (1952-4).

Le Passage du Commerce Saint-André, 1952-4

Le Passage du Commerce Saint-André, 1952-4

The figures in these beguile me; their interplay, their seductive yet restrained theatricality. I am moved by his capacity for reshaping and interpreting the world of his experience and imagination. It’s not unusual of course for painters to aspire and achieve this in their work, but Balthus had an uncanny sense for creating drama and tension by disrupting our hold on relationships; those between his subjects, and the pictorial ones that govern the conventions of space, light, form and representation. In this respect his painting has deep-rooted connections to the iconic and religious art of pre-Renaissance Europe. The figures in this painting inhabit the same, and yet their own, world… It is a work that alludes not just to the physical world, but to the more elusive aspects of it’s subjects’ interior lives.

So why should this kind of painting appeal or provide inspiration to artists of our own century, so far removed from the historical context and challenges of Balthus’ own? Primarily because it taps into those aspects of our human condition which are instinctive, primal and imaginative. My view is that it celebrates and affirms the strength, uncertainty and enigma of human relationships in a world where the systems and institutions of our time continually seek to regulate, contain and define them. There’s a little madness and mystery about these paintings that works to dispel the stale air of social convention and complacency.

Now you may not like the subject matter and you may not like the artist. Yet these paintings, silent and painted decades ago, still have much to say to us. The question is whether we’re listening.


Balthus the Painter on YouTube:

Balthus: Works | Inteview Miek Bal, Ediciones Polígrafa, S.A. 2008

Balthus Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Thames & Hudson (rev edn), 2001


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