Art: Nightshade

In their treatment of personality, contemporary artists usually fall into the extremes of well-meaning portraiture, ill-meaning caricature or deep-meaning fantasy. For a highly unusual glimpse of the middle ground, the ground plowed up by psychoanalysts and cultivated more subtly by writers from Flaubert to Thomas Mann, Manhattanites last week repaired to the Pierre Matisse Gallery to see 15 paintings by a 30-year-old Parisian known as Balthus.

Compared to surrealism, the works of Balthus are realistic, conservative. Compared to most conservative paintings, they are deadly nightshade. Constructed with mathematical care, painted large and...

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