September 2, 2018 – January 1, 2019
The Fondation Beyeler in Riehen/Basel is devoting a retrospective exhibition to the legendary artist Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (1908–2001), known as Balthus. The show is the first exhibition of Balthus's art in a Swiss museum since 2008 and the first comprehensive presentation of his work anywhere in German-speaking Switzerland.
Balthus had a long and close connection with Switzerland, extending from his later childhood years in Bern, Geneva, and Beatenberg, via his marriage to the Swiss aristocrat Antoinette de Watteville and their time together in the French and German-speaking parts of the country, to the final decades of his life in the Alpine village of Rossinière.
Balthus is viewed as one of the great masters of twentieth-century art, and is certainly one of the truly singular painters of his time. In his complex and multifaceted oeuvre, admired by some and spurned by others, he pursued an artistic approach that embodied an alternative, and a challenge, to modern avant-gardes. In his opposition to prevailing views, he refers to a whole range of art-historical traditions and precursors. Yet in his eccentric detachment from modernism, he developed his own specific avant-garde attitude, which now appears almost postmodern and contemporary.
The starting point for the exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler is Balthusʼs monumental painting Passage du Commerce-Saint-André, from 1952–1954, which has been on permanent loan to the museum for some time. This enigmatic work epitomizes the artist's intensive engagement with the dimensions of space and time in the image, and with their relationship to the figure and the object. With this focus, the exhibition will bring together some fifty important pictures from every phase of Balthus's oeuvre, looking also at the strategies employed in the staging of his often provocative images, and illuminating the elements of irony and mystery in his work. His pictures combine tranquility with extreme tension, and embody a wealth of contradictions, mingling dream and reality, eroticism and innocence, the factual and the unfathomable, the familiar and the uncanny, in a wholly unique way.
The exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, realized with the generous support of the artist's family, is curated by Dr. Raphaël Bouvier (Curator) and Michiko Kono (Associate Curator). It will subsequently be shown at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.
Balthus, Le Roi des chats, 1935
Balthus was born in Paris on February 29, 1908 as Balthasar Klossowski de Rola. At an early age he decided to become a painter. Le Roi des chats is one of his few self-portraits. It shows the 27-year-old posing confidently as an elegant man about town. His elongated legs and the cat’s strangely twisted head lend the painting a rather uncanny aspect. The artist alludes to his métier not by means of attributes, such as a palette and brushes, but through a rather immodest inscription on the canvas or slab of stone leaning against the stool: “A portrait of H.M. the King of the Cats painted by himself, 1935.” Cats played an important part in Balthus’s life and work. They appear repeatedly in his paintings, not infrequently as the artist’s alter ego. In this picture from 1935 a cat nestles up against the leg of its master the king, who is perhaps also its trainer. A whip on the chair hints at an animal tamer’s gear. Balthus has clearly already tamed the cat in his painting.
Balthus, Thérèse rêvant, 1938
Despite the variety of his oeuvre, Balthus is generally associated with images of girls and young women. His fascination with this subject lay not least with the self-absorption and aloofness that he saw as characteristic of adolescents. Typically, his pictures of girls on the cusp of adulthood oscillate between the nonchalance of a child and the seductive erotic appeal of a grown woman. Thérèse rêvant is among the first and finest examples. The sitter’s confident pose, and the pensive yet relaxed expression on her averted face, lend her a self-assured and sensual aura. Thérèse apparently believes herself unobserved, detached from time and space—or is she in fact deliberately exerting her seductive power over the viewer? This painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, recently caused a great stir. An online petition demanded that it be removed from view or placed in a broader explanatory context. This prompted widespread public discussion of the freedoms and boundaries of art, as well as the responsibility that museums have toward visitors and artists. The Fondation Beyeler’s special program of events accompanying this exhibition offers an opportunity to continue this debate.
Balthus, Le Cerisier, 1940
Balthus’s oeuvre is dominated by interiors, yet he also created exquisite landscape painting. He painted Le Cerisier in 1940, shortly after returning from the front in World War II. Exempted from military service, he left Paris and settled in the village of Champrovent in unoccupied Savoy. We notice the figure in the painting only on closer inspection: hidden in the shade of a cherry tree, a young woman in a dark dress stands on a ladder and reaches for a fruit on one of the branches. It is as if we have come across this idyllic, harmonious scene by chance. Balthus painted no images of war during hostilities. Asked if he had never felt the need to do so, he replied: “It’s enough to have experienced [the war]. When I was demobbed, after 1940, I painted Le Cerisier. That was the expression of an upsurge of joy. A way of saying ‘go to hell’ to war, to misery, to History.”
Balthus, Passage du Commerce-Saint-André, 1952–1954
Balthus began working on this large picture, his chef d’oeuvre, in 1952 in his studio in the Cour de Rohan in Paris. He finished it two years later, after moving to the Château de Chassy in Burgundy. The painting depicts the end of the street in Paris that contained the artist’s studio and apartment. In it Balthus takes up a subject he had addressed in La Rue (1933; Room 2), once more transforming an actual street into a mysterious stage set on which time seems to stand still. The ghostly, self-absorbed actors in this play appear frozen in their roles as representatives of the three stages of life: childhood, adulthood, and old age. This and other pictures of this period reveal a striking change in the artist’s palette, whereby he increasingly adopted pastel shades veiled in gray, emphasizing the matt and rough painted surfaces, in the style of frescoes.
Balthus, La Chambre turque, 1965/66
La Chambre turque dates from the mid-1960s when Balthus was director of the French Academy in Rome and lived in the Renaissance building housing it, the Villa Medici. The painting’s richly ornamental character and Oriental appearance come as a surprise in view of his previous work. It shows a petite woman reclining like an odalisque on a sofa in the villa’s Turkish Room, her dressing-gown open as she gazes at herself in a hand mirror. But does she really look into it? Balthus’s second wife, the Japanese painter Setsuko Ideta, adopts here a pose traditionally associated with Venus. The matte surface, resulting from a mixture of casein and tempera, recalls Renaissance frescoes, which Balthus studied often on his many trips to Italy. During his time in Rome he was closely involved in the restoration of the dilapidated villa and this awakened, furthermore, his interest in ornamentation. Sumptuous tiles, brightly decorated fabrics, and rich patterns became typical features of his late work.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski) is born in Paris. He is the second son of the German-Polish art historian Erich Klossowski and the German-Jewish artist Else (or Elsa) Klossowski, née Spiro. The children grow up in a sophisticated artistic environment. Balthus’s brother, Pierre Klossowski, three years his senior, will become a notable writer and artist.
Events and Tips
Balthus in conversation
EVERY SUNDAY, 1 – 2 pm – What is it about Balthus' paintings that fascinates you, perhaps confuses or even surprisesyou? Share your thoughts with us. Join our discussions in the museum every Sunday from 1 – 2 pm after the Public Guided Tour (12 – 1 pm). Places are limited. Price: Public Guided Tour: 7 CHF / Balthus Discussion: free.
What is it about Balthus' paintings that fascinates you, perhaps confuses or even surprises you? Share your thoughts with us.
«Balthus' Bilder aber sollten nicht aus Museen verschwinden müssen, nur weil sie uns unsere Angst vor menschlichen Leidenschaften und seelischen Abgründen vor Augen halten.»
«Bilder wie aus einer anderen Welt»
«Man darf diesen Künstler nicht mögen, aber man muss ihn ausstellen»
«Die aussergewöhnlichen Gemälde von Balthus - in Riehen werden ihrer fünfzig gezeigt - können so bald für sich sprechen. Sie kreisen das Mysterium des Begehrens ein, ohne ihm das Geheimnis zu rauben»
The exhibition "Balthus" is being supported by: