Recently, I strolled through Balthus’s “The Street” (1933) at a retrospective of his work in Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale. Each time I see that remarkable, disturbing painting, I follow the drama of a different dreamer.
He’s waiting for an important phone call, this stiff young man pretending to be a chef. Or is he a little-too-small chef pretending to be a large, cut-out sign? Or an aspiring film director, working at a restaurant? It’s tough to pin down the actors and their interactions in “The Street,” the first large, physically immersive painting Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) ever created.
The figures are about life-size. They could as likely step out of their painting into the museum as museum-goers could step into the canvas. Adding to this impression, the painting is hung low, our eyes and feet close to those of the people on the street. “The Street” greets viewers at the entrance to the Rome exhibit, with an oil study hanging beside it (the two images have never been displayed together before). But there are no greeters in this neighborhood with its random alliances of silence. The arrangement of the figures form a see-through barrier blocking our entry. No place for handshakes, which would be too everyday even for the least otherworldly, least forbidding, of Balthus’s oeuvre. The carpenter is busy building invisible walls to hide the splintered seams between nightmares and dreams.
The pavement absorbs all sounds of footsteps and a bouncing red ball. There are no meows, beeps, or screams on Balthus’s street, the rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. Radios and sighs and kitchen aromas are stifled behind closed windows. Outside, no smelly cigarette butts. Here is a Parisian backstreet washed clean. But what about the ferocity of sweaty lechery? Someone deserves a swift kick in the nuts.
The wobbly world contained within this canvas was solidly built by a 25-year-old French-Polish master. The neighborhood is designed to keep nonresidents like you and me standing on one toe, like the implied triangle of the red and white rectangular signs hanging off the building on the left, held in tension by the red sphere below.
Picture the white oval hanging from the apse shell in Piero della Francesca’s, “The Brera Madonna” (1472), where the painting is centered compositionally and spiritually by the ostrich egg. Now picture the egg swaying. Then, Balthus’s ball rolling.
In “The Street,” order teeters on the ball. When it stirs, as balls do, there goes the triangle established with the signs. If the ball and signs go, there goes the precision of the carpenter’s placement framed within. If eyes so much as shift, the town’s balance will be destroyed. The status quo is maintained by passersby minding their own business and pretending there’s no reason not to.
Dreams blend. When the checkered-bloused female gets home, she’ll call a sitter for her son and make a reservation: dinner for one. Does she notice, as she arrives at La Méditerranée, the bibbed creature seated above the door? And what’s with the girl in the boat? Is Balthus’s “The Mediterranean Cat” (1949) — painted as a sign for the high-end seafood restaurant on Place de l’Odéon — a serious effort or a joke? Or both? Is the hungry man-cat Balthus? The artist is, after all, “The King of Cats,” as one of his rare self-portraits informs us (while a tabby nuzzles his leg). The dreams of Balthus, a learned, literary man, are mazy reads.
The ring of the young woman’s phone call for a table at La Méditerranée will set the ball in motion, which will animate the people on “The Street.” Or the chef’s shout of “Action!” will. (It’s his favorite part of directing.) Muscles, stiff from holding fabricated poses, will flex. In no time the trance-like ensemble will let loose, chattering away, except for the deranged individual in black, whom everyone but the chased child pretends is not there. These garrulous actors, until this very moment, were unaware of their lines because there were no lines between them, or so they thought. In fact, geometry has always connected them, just as it connects the artist to his revered Italian Renaissance predecessors like Piero, Giotto, and Masaccio.
There is a second triangle, with the man groping the schoolgirl as the base, that telescopes toward the child in their path — and terminates, once again, in the red ball. Long ago, the abused girl in the white socks was the ankle-less racket wielder.
Twenty-one years later, an eternity in Balthus time, the little athlete, who ages weirdly, wields only a pocketbook and a cane while hobbling, hunch-backed and wrinkled, through “The Passage of Commerce Saint-Andre” (1954). The boy in his mother’s arms in the earlier street painting, with his head cocked parallel to the only other preschooler in sight, had eyes just for her. He was thinking of the love letter he would write one day. An old lady now, she still carries his letter in her bag.
In “The Street” there is another triangulating trio: the faceless people. The mother carrying the boy and the woman in the red-and-black cap form the base of a triangle that terminates, this time, in the left edge of the carpenter’s long board. The red-and-black cap fits off-center into the red-and-black storefront. No customers are waiting outside, but it’s the busiest part of town. The head of the boy walking to her left is centered under the black window behind — a window pretending to be a top hat. Growing bigger with each step, the mad-hatter is entertaining Napoleonic delusions of grandeur.
Meanwhile, the ruby red ball bounces out of the painting and hits the road. Here and there it slows at the feet of a young girl, shirtless or hiked-up-skirted or naked, posing, primping, sleeping, dreaming, swooning, or reading — often within reach of a cat purring. Light thrills flesh. What is the artist doing, giving his models such poses? Actual girls don’t look this way when they read or play with cats.
Of course, these girls are not real. They are a brilliant artist’s dark illusion. They are only real in the masterfully made, demanding, and, yes, sometimes creepy paintings that they inhabit, where light is not simply nice. We have rolled down a rabbit hole.
The ball rolls past Balthus’s “Still Life” of 1937, a staging of beautifully painted objects that recall his staged people on “The Street.” (Balthus’s father, by the way, was not only a well-respected art historian and painter, but also a stage designer.) There are art history overtones here of 17th-century Dutch vanitas still life paintings, with their broken pitchers and overturned goblets suggesting life’s transitory nature in the face of God’s permanence. But Balthus’s hammer and knife (especially the hammer) in his shattered still life suggest not religion, but violence. What’s that hammer doing in the middle of what at first appears to be a fairly standard-looking array of compatible items casually left over after a meal? Did it smash the glass decanter beside it? The hammer, which doesn’t really belong here, is plopped right in the middle of what is clearly not a dinner table. But because the handle of the tool lies partially behind the decanter’s transparent bowl, and its blackish head blends in with the dark tones of the wooden tabletop, it’s easy to miss its strangeness at first. Like many of Balthus’s other works, including many of his images that include people, this one looks believable, and then it doesn’t. And then it does. The artist creates a convincing, painted world that is and isn’t part of the real world. That schism is its strength.
There was abject horror going on in Europe in 1937, when this painting was created. So it shouldn’t surprise us that even Balthus’s simple still life is darkly tempered. It was part of the times, as well as part of his vision. (Grateful that it’s not one of the tabletop objects at the broken-decanter gathering, the red ball slips away.)
A nearby room of landscapes is no different: the views, even here, are subtly sinister. In “Great Landscape with Tree” (1960), there’s a sunbeam that is pointed like the tooth of a feral cat. (Light with an edge.) The tree forms a see-through barrier, reminiscent of the cluster of pedestrians in “The Street,” that almost denies our entry into the picture. In both cases, denial is just a tease.
With all the controversy over Balthus’s stylized girls, who would expect to be so blown away by the artist’s landscapes? But then, this exhibit shows off Balthus to be far ranging. Yes, he is a singular painter of figures (mostly females), but also of interiors, still lifes, townscapes, landscapes, and dreamscapes. Each genre is, of course, different, yet the artist’s slant is in them all. His strange people set us up for the psychology in the landscapes, which, in turn, prepare us for the poetry of his portraits and figural compositions.
In “Great Landscape with Tree,” he transforms oil paint into fresco. Artistry becomes alchemy. What a surface. What light. What a tree! Balthus stole Cezanne’s brush, with its cool and warm nuances still nestled in the bristles. Weaving in and out of the nubby surface, the rhythm of the tree branches shimmer in bleached and ancient light, playing a calligraphic game of hide and seek with rooftops, distance, and us. The man in the lower left corner, strolling from up-close darkness toward sunny, far-off fields is as much not there as there, dissolving and materializing out of the shadow. He’s the guy from the middle of “The Passage of Commerce Saint-Andre.” He likes long walks. And rabbit holes.
The ruby-red ball continues its journey, now rolling past a wall of drawings, each portraying a reclining female figure. With one exception, the models almost disappear into the paper—or are they being coaxed out of it? These delicate pencil drawings were made as studies for the child in Balthus’s most indelicate painting, “The Guitar Lesson” (1934), which is not included in the exhibition.
A small pen drawing that is in the show (the exception mentioned above) roughs out the over-the-top action of the large, excluded painting. A music teacher sadistically abuses her young student. The interaction between Mary and Christ in paintings depicting the Pieta and the Deposition from the Cross, such as “La Pietà de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon” (c.1455) in the Louvre, likely inspired the artist’s choice of teacher and student gestures in the canvas and the pen and ink study for “The Guitar Lesson.” If so, it’s certainly not the first time this radical classicist (who is never academic) has quoted Old Masters. But it’s his most provocative use of that tradition.
Generally, Balthus’s formal wizardry balances his most off-putting subject matter. A case in point: the masterful graphite on paper, “Study for the Guitar Lesson” (1934). Two exceptions (well, one and a half): the realistically portrayed oil, “The Guitar Lesson” and, to a lesser degree, the more expressionistic pen drawing for it. The latter is to a lesser degree because, despite its extremely off-putting subject, there is art in the quality of the drawing, especially in the rich and wild array of feverish pen strokes.
The energy of the mark-making reflects the horror of the action. If you can get past the subject matter, you will see the artist’s superb control of his medium and form. And as distasteful as it is to talk about form when confronted with this content, it is the stunning abstraction of textures, tones, and touch woven into the ugly power struggle that shares the drawing’s core.
In this respect, Balthus’s pen and ink “Study for the Guitar Lesson” shares something important with the images that comprise Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War series. Both artists confront us with appalling subject matter. Their artistic skills can bring us to look at what is easier to pretend does not exist. Addressing depravity can help undermine it.
In the graphite study of the solitary, reclining child, there’s a profound tug of war between the robust tonal cascade of folds and the faceless, fragile, semi-naked girl. After seeing the more developed versions in pen and in oil, the absence of the guitar in the pencil sketch is poignant. Has the instrument been stolen, along with her innocence? Like the adolescent in white socks on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau, will she ever retrieve the tender make-believe that nurtures childhood and its music?
In the painting of “The Guitar Lesson” by contrast, content overwhelms form to such a degree that the artist’s efforts founder. Balthus’ best work thrives on ambiguity. Replaced by choices blunt and literal, ambiguity is conspicuously absent here.
According to the painter himself, he calculated that a loaded subject like this would attract attention when he displayed it in Paris in his first solo show. It did, so I guess he got what he wanted, scandalizing his public not only with his subject matter, but with what his audience considered the “sacrilegious” quotations in the gestures of the two figures. He never returned to such outright careerism or sensationalism.
The ball bounces against the wall and, picking up backspin, returns to its fixed place in “The Street,” whose denizens are stuck in their personal bubbles until the next call to “Action!” or telephone ring. Then the ball will get rolling, and the carpenter will be on his way to once again hide the splintered seams between nightmares and dreams. The man strolling through “Great Landscape with Tree” will return to his place in “The Passage of Commerce Saint-Andre.” And at the seafood restaurant, the goofy but fierce man-cat will drop the fish bones from his rainbow meal into the Mediterranean Sea. Then, sated, and leaving the ruby red ball behind, this complex, mysterious creature will sail into the sunset with many of our doubts on board.
Balthus was held October 24, 2015, through January 31, 2016, at Scuderie del Quirinale (Via XXIV Maggio 16, Rome).