Balthus the unclassifiable


Earl Balthusz Klossowski de Rola (1908-2001), known as BALTHUS, built an œuvre that reflected his complex  personality, both implicit and explicit, eccentric and reserved. Balthus was raised in admiration of Cezanne by his father, Erich Klossowski, an artist and art historian. He was however totally self-taught, drawing his inspiration from a rich pictorial tradition based on the Italian Quattrocento, Poussin’s French classicism (which he copied a lot in the Louvre), Courbet’s realism, Maurice Denis’s symbolism and illustrations from 19th century children’s books. Although certain affinities with Surrealism and the Neue Sachlichkeit movement have been suggested, Balthus developed his own unclassifiable style that was contrary to the avant-garde of his time; a highly constructed figurative style that he refined for months, even years, before being satisfied with a work. For Balthus, painting was not a pleasure; it was a ‘real job’, an intelligence of the hand. Already during his lifetime his œuvre was recognized as one of the most important in 20th century art history and it has been exhibited all over the world… not without controversy.

Exhibiting Balthus…

It took two years to prepare the retrospective at the Beyeler Foundation, an exhibition retracing the different periods of Balthus’s creation, from the 1920s to the 1990s. The best works were loaned by major museums – including the Metropolitan, the MoMA, the Pompidou Center and the Tate Modern – and from American, European and Asian private collections. Some forty major works were on view, including the painting Thérèse rêvant (Thérèse dreaming) (1938), a work censored last year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The scandal took off like wildfire in November 2017 via a petition demanding the withdrawal of Thérèse dreaming which collected thousands of signatures in a few hours. True… its exhibition came at a particularly sensitive time… against the backdrop of all the sexual assault and harassment accusations triggered by the Harvey Weinstein affair which largely dominated the American media for months. In New York, as elsewhere, Balthus’s art is still controversial. So the challenge for exhibitions of his work (like the one just ended at the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland) lies less in getting the works together and more in the controversies that they spark when shown to the public. In short, exhibiting Balthus is not an easy task…

In any case, not all his works are risqué; only a small number depict very young girls in ambiguous compositions, between childish indifference and suggestive poses. Balthus is famous for having developed an œuvre as sublime as it is uncomfortable, conveying a vague, indefinable, confusing and somewhat disturbing tension… in short a feeling of unease and disquiet that led many to criticise him for daring to mix candour with eroticism. The indignation aroused by some of his works is not new; it flared up at his first Paris exhibition at the Pierre Gallery (Pierre Matisse, brother of Henri Matisse) in 1934. Several works were considered very shocking at the time, including his rather tame canvas entitled La Rue. However, a veritable scandal erupted at the Pierre gallery when his Guitar Lesson (1934) depicting a sexually explicit scene was exhibited behind a curtain. This ‘embarrassing’ painting (now the artist’s most famous work), has changed owners a dozen times. Even the New York MoMA – to whom Pierre Matisse had given the work – preferred to part with it under pressure from the trustees. The indignation of the museum’s patrons (on its board of directors) got the upper hand, depriving the MoMA of an emblematic work. If The Guitar Lesson appeared at auction today, collectors from all over the world would almost certainly bid the work beyond $10 million.

Buying Balthus

The market is not bothered by scandal or controversy. Collectors only see the power of this singular, sincere and disturbing work. Japanese photographer Araki expressed it well: « Balthus touches with his eyes and never with his fingers ». On the auction market, his paintings are particularly sought-after because they are rare. Indeed scarcity has considerably accelerated his price inflation in recent years and one painting, Lady Abdy (1935), illustrates the rise particularly well. In November 1988, a well-inspired buyer acquired Lady Adby at Sotheby’s in London for $1.4 million. Thirty years later, in November 2015, the painting sold for $9.9 million in a prestige sale at Christie’s New York, setting a new record for the artist and adding $8.5 million to its previous value. The model in the painting is none other than the beautiful Iya Grigorievna de Gay, one of the most prominent muses of her time, who inspired not only Balthus but also Derain, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and George Hoyningen Huene. Balthus’s best paintings are worth millions and even his sketches in pencil fetch good prices, often reaching $20,000. These sketches fascinate amateurs with the care taken in terms of composition and light, in just a few pencil strokes.

At the end of his life, with his sight and steadiness of hand failing, Balthus was unable to draw spontaneously, so he started using a Polaroid camera. Some fifteen years ago, the prestigious Gagosian gallery in New York exhibited nearly 2,000 of his Polaroids. However, in 2014, the same collection was censored by a German museum (the Folkwang Museum in Essen). Today, his photographs fetch nearly as much as his preparatory drawings. A first polaroid was put on sale last May at Phillips in New York. Fetching $8,000, it immediately ranked Balthus as one of the top-priced artists on this small and sensitive medium, behind Warhol and Mapplethorpe. And that price level looks like sticking, especially as it is supported by the powerful Larry Gagosian.