Art: Poisoned Innocence, Surface Calm

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 3)

The side of Balthus not predicted by The Street was suggested, in 1937, by The Mountain. This enormous scene of young hikers in the Bernese Oberland holds so many references—from Courbet, Caspar David Friedrich and Poussin, for starters—that it approaches pastiche. It creaks with the ambition to be a masterpiece and is regularly taken for one, though its composition has the spottily grand look of an academic mistake. But the figure of Balthus's blond wife, hands stretched above her head, rising from the dark plateau into the zone of early-morning sun, is a prime lyric invention; and the color has a resonant, hallucinated distinctness that brings early Mird to mind. Balthus would eventually paint some of the best landscapes of his time. The pick of them, perhaps, is Larchant, 1939, with its luminous sheet of sky and its mellow, precise inter-lockings of building, field and mound.

Not all Balthus's landscapes achieve this unremitting gravity. When he tried to carry a picture more on quotation than on sight, he ended up with enameled parodies of Claude like Landscape ofChamprovent, 1941-43. The more he cast himself as the last conduit of classical prototypes, the stiffer and more self-satisfied his work be came, a decline most evident after he moved to the Villa Medici in 1961. The measured suppleness of Balthus's paint surface now began to ossify, acquiring a thick, chalky, fresco-like appearance. It was meant to suggest the warmth and historical patina of old Roman walls, and so it did, but in a merely decorative way. "Pier rot della Francesca," the gibe of one of Balthus's contemporaries, hits the late paintings dead center.

Taste, decorum and an attitudinizing kind of augustness creep in to replace the former intensity, with the unforeseen result that Balthus seems more given to pastiche now than he was 40 years ago. In a painting like Japanese Figure with a Black Mirror, 1967-76, the way he quotes the artificial perspective of Edo prints looks almost complacent, despite the wit ty sense of sexual packaging conveyed by the white obi round the girl's naked waist.

What Balthus now produces, most of the time, is salon art; and one longs for that vulpine sharpness, that coexistence of sur face calm and predatory desire, that made him the sometimes rather disagreeable poet he once was. — By Robert Hughes

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next Page