Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, died in February 2001 at the age of 91. 'Balthus, of course, was never a Surrealist' are the words with which Jean Clair, the curator of the retrospective at the prestigious Palazzo Grassi, opens his introductory catalogue essay. Strictly speaking, one wants to add, Balthus was also never a Modernist. He rejected both Abstraction and Expressionism in favour of a style that draws heavily on the aesthetics of the fading frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Balthus steered clear of the avant-garde. Although his first exhibition in 1934 was staged at the Galerie Pierre, a bastion of Surrealism at the time, and in 1935 the Surrealist magazine Minotaure reproduced his drawings based on Wuthering Heights (1847), Balthus never mixed with the group around André Breton, but was friends with individuals such as Alberto Giacometti, Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille and Pablo Picasso.
This retrospective is presented as a paradox: in explanatory wall texts and a documentary video it is suggested that because Balthus' work is the Modernist exception it must be quintessentially Modernist, the artist's break with avant-garde consensus being perceived as a truly radical gesture. Balthus is thus portrayed as the archetypal mythic Modern artist, a heroic loner characterized by an air of mystery and mastery, aristocratic eccentricity and a professed hatred of the interpreters of his work. Photographs of Balthus with his angular face, slicked-back hair and cigarette elegantly dangling from his lips were on display, as if to authenticate this ideal of the solitary bohemian genius.
Fortunately this myth of mastery is dispelled by Balthus' works - it is liberating to see lots of bad paintings among them. Especially some of the landscapes Balthus painted after leaving Paris for a château in the country are toe-curling owing to their awkward attempts to capture an ideal of classic beauty. After all, what you look for in Balthus is not mastery, but the indescribable weirdness generated by his myriad displacements of forbidden sexual fantasies. So despite attempts to display the breadth of Balthus' oeuvre, the works that exemplify the artist's strange fascination for the subtle perversity of the haute bourgeoisie were the main attraction in this show.
The Guitar Lesson (1934) depicts a female music teacher beating a young girl. The scene is staged in a bourgeois interior. The girl lies on the lap of the teacher like the corpse of Christ in a Pietà, her skirt hitched up to reveal her naked crotch. In defence, she tears at the blouse of her teacher and exposes her right breast. This moment of violence reoccurs in The Victim (1939-46), a painting of a naked sleeping girl. In the shadows beside her bed lies a long knife, like an invitation to murder. The youthful body is presented both as an ideal of innocent beauty and the object of a devastating envy. Like Lacan, Balthus suggests that idealization generates violence, that is, the wish to destroy what one wants to have, or be, but cannot attain.
This sense of impending catastrophe is tangible in most of Balthus' paintings of this period. The artificial equilibrium of the bourgeois social order, represented by the static space Balthus borrowed from Renaissance painting, is constantly threatened with collapse: not only owing to the threat of violence, but also in regard to a breakdown of pictorial space. The figures in Balthus' paintings are strangely flat. They always seem on the verge of ceasing to obey the laws of three-dimensionality by dropping out of the picture. This moment of potential transgression is symbolized by the reccurring figure of a cat, which often appears at the scene of an erotic encounter. The cat is allowed to look and even to touch. As its touch lacks violence, the cat can break the taboo without disturbing the symbolic order. So Balthus gives a clue to the riddle of his paintings: who knows the secret of sex? Perhaps the cats do. But they're not telling.
First published in Issue 64