If that naughty Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908 – 2001) were still alive and posing pre-adolescent girls for crotch views today, all you could really talk about is how quickly he ought to be taken into custody. But he’s gone, whatever damage was done is done, and it’s reasonable now to consider the shadings of his work. The current exhibition at the Met in New York offers an interesting sweep through his oeuvre.If Balthus hadn’t done “the guitar lesson” and suchlike famous pieces, we’d probably never hear his name–one more mid-list European eccentric. Having seen them, it’s easy to dismiss all his nudes as nasty. Which would be too bad. It’s a mistake to put them all in the same category. When he creates images with some complexity, some ambiguity, as in “La Chambre,” he gets interesting.
The stern, square-faced child pushing back the drapes makes this more than simply a view of girlish abandon. There is nothing subtle about “the guitar lesson,” but “La Chambre” is more elusive. The design is more diffuse, the light more complex, the girl soft-focused like everything else. The narrative of girl and child, whatever it may be, keeps the eye moving and discovering the details of the room, reticent as they are.
In “guitar” the peripheral details are there simply to provide some visual action; in “La Chambre” the details are not peripheral, they are integral to the whole. As they are in “Nude with cat,” below, another mildly provocative piece in which the figure is not so defiantly underaged, and the bold simplicity of the modeling, the happy coloring, and the active design delight the eye without unease. And the cat. Funny. If we hadn’t started with “the guitar lesson” we wouldn’t think twice about moral implications.
And in the middle of all his sensational stuff, Balthus also painted landscapes. Who knew?