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Thursday, August 2, 2012


Nude with Pink Jacket, 1927, Balthus,
the "tasteful nude" which got little notice.
Artists of all types and nationalities have long had a love affair with the female nude. Of course, there's always a case to be made for the inherent aesthetic beauty of the nude figure (male or female), but the most believable logic dictates since men have long dominated the ranks of artists, the persistent prevalence of the female nude in their work derives mostly from the fact that men like to look at naked women. The art world has even derived a term for this art, the "tasteful nude." Presumably there is also the "distasteful nude" though that may well fall under the much more common label, "pornography." But, as with any such labels marking the end zones of a spectrum, there's always a middle ground, and there the judgments become grayed with ambiguity. Balthasar Klossowski inhabits this combat zone of taste.

Balthus Portrait, Cartier-Bresson

Klossowski was born on February 29, 1908. That's leap year day. Near the end of his life, he was fond of telling everyone that made him only 23. He died in 2001 at the age of 92. He lived with his Japanese wife, Setsuko Ideta, now in her mid-sixties and also a painter of some note. They lived in an old Chateau near the Swiss village of Rossiniere. The place is so big it use to be a hotel. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Dali, Picasso, Miro, and Matisse, he always tended to shun the limelight, often retreating into near obscurity, proud of the fact that he has never visited the United States, even to attend one of several retrospectives of his work here. If the name, Klossowski, doesn't ring a bell, maybe it's because he's come to be known simply as Balthus.

The Street, 1933, Balthus
Balthus first gained notice in the 1930s for his sometimes shocking modern variations of the work of artists such as Masaccio, Poussin, della Francesca, and Masolino. His 1933 work, The Street bears witness to several of these influences. But it was his 1934 painting, The Guitar Lesson (which is too sexually explicit to appear here), depicting a young girl, naked below the waist, draped over the knees of a bare-breasted woman that first brought his work to the attention of the art world. He freely admits it was painted to gain recognition and concedes that to some eyes it would seem to have lesbian implications little short of pornography (he was right about that). During the 30's, like his friend Miro, he was courted by the Surrealists, but hated vehemently its founder, Andre Breton. It was a short courtship. From there, he tended toward a path all his own, flirting with the classics in composing his paintings but bearing a somewhat oversimplified realism in terms of style.

Joan Miro and His Daughter Delores,
1938, Balthus
Both his mother and father were involved in the arts. Born and raised Catholic but from Jewish ancestry (which he tried at times to hide), his father was an art historian who wrote several books on Daumier, while his mother was a painter with a style so close to that of Pierre Bonnard it's said even Bonnard could not tell their work apart. As a child and young man he traveled broadly in Europe, studying extensively at all the museums he could find, but especially the Louvre where he not only copied his favorite paintings, but claims to have "memorized" them as well. Such rote learning is plainly evident in his work, especially his portraits, such as his 1938 portrait of Joan Miro and His Daughter, Delores.

Therese Dreaming, 1938, Balthus,
not one of his adolescent nudes,
but you get the idea.

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