Art: Poisoned Innocence, Surface Calm

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At the Metropolitan, the problematic French painter Balthus

Two artists in our century have won worldwide fame by creating works whose best-known image is the child as sex object. One was the writer Vladimir Nabokov; the other is the painter Balthus. He is the antimodernist's modernist. His retrospective at the Pompidou Center in Paris this past winter drew large crowds, and in a March auction in London, one of his paintings went for more than $1 million.

The Paris show, with some additions and substitutions, has now come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City—without Balthus's full blessing, it would seem, since he was offended by the number of facts about his life given by Art Historian Sabine Rewald in her catalogue. Balthus hates any biographical disclosures to be made: the Paris catalogue did not even give his date of birth. "Just say," he told the art critic John Russell, who organized a Balthus retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1968, "that Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known." However, enough of his work has been assembled at the Met to give ample grounds for judging a painter whose oeuvre has been fetishized and underrated to equally striking degrees.

There is, of course, no question which treatment he prefers. For 16 years Balthus was director of the French Academy at the Villa Medici in Rome: never a sinecure for the meek, and perhaps not since Ingres's day held by a more indurated snob than Balthus. One can follow his appetite for grandeur as the name evolves: plain Balthasar Klossowski to start, then Balthasar de Klossowski, then Klossowski de Rola, and now, in his eighth decade, the "Comte de Rola." The fact that he has been able to fend off inquiry about his origins for so long is a tribute to the alarm that this glacial, gifted and pretentious man inspires in the French. The ostensible aim of his facade is to fade away, like the Cheshire cat (Balthus is fond of cats), and leave only the work, like the grin, hanging in the air. But the real result, of which Balthus must be meticulously aware, is to create a myth about himself: the painter as romantic hero, a Byronic creature with a secret wound and obscurely exalted origins.

The facts of Balthus's Me, as related by Rewald, are interesting but far from sensational. The big secret turns out merely to be that he is part Jewish. Balthus was born in , Paris in 1908 to East European emigre parents, s both artists. They raised him in a cultivated milieu that included the poet 1 Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom his mother was infatuated and who became a surrogate father to the boy after the Klossowskis separated.

Living in genteel poverty—"Russian pathos," Rilke called it—Balthus and his mother limped from one exile to another: Berlin, Geneva, Berlin again, and finally, in 1924, back to Paris.

By then the 16-year-old boy, unsettled by the hand-to-mouth nature of his life and the anti-Semitism of the Berliners, was doing poorly at school. But with encouragement from his doting, tenacious mother and from Rilke, he had constructed an inner room, an astoundingly precocious life as a budding artist.

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