Art: Poisoned Innocence, Surface Calm

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 3)

His formal art education began in Paris in the early '20s. Balthus shied away from politico-aesthetic groups like the surrealists. After such a childhood, who needed the insecurities of the avantgarde? Instead he settled down to study the fathers: Poussin and Courbet in France and, supreme among the Italians, Piero della Francesca. The clarity and density of Piero's figures, their presence as signs in geometrically ordered space—that was what impressed Balthus. He also made designs for the stage, which in turn influenced his painting. Theater-plus-Piero gave the cues to The Street, 1933, an exceedingly odd painting constructed like a Swiss watch.

We are in a banal Paris street, the Rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. Yet the scene is far from ordinary. The orthogonals and links between objects give it a tense, mathematical substructure with all manner of arcane rhymes: the triad, for instance, of the red ball on the ground, the globe over the door and the pompon on the boy's cap. The cast of characters is mixed. The man in white might be a baker, or perhaps Christ carrying the lignum crucis; the two boys are Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the twins from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. It did not escape Balthus that Carroll had a thing about little girls: Tweedledum is molesting Alice. Most of the themes of Balthus's mature work are announced in this strikingly precocious painting: the rigorous yet mysterious space, the haughtily erudite quotations from high art, the choice of sex object, the theatricalization of rape.

Throughout the '30s and '40s, densely academic images of slightly poisoned girlish innocence would become Balthus's stock-in-trade. He did portraits too. His rendering of Andre Derain as a jowly menhir of flesh in a dressing gown is surely one of the great portraits of the century. But the schoolgirls were his preoccupation. Nobody could call them obscene; they have Art written all over them. Yet they have a great deal in common with the higher literary porn of the '40s, in which writers like Georges Bataille or Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues wove faultless conservative embroidery on a disdainfully erotic vision. Balthus's quintessential (and least seen) painting of that sort, The Guitar Lesson, is not in the show. But others, hardly less remarkable, are. Among them is The Room, 1952-54, whose teen-age girl sprawls in a posture of utter abandon, like a sunbather but in a dark room, while a malicious-looking dwarf yanks back the curtain to flood her body with light.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3