Balthus, the long awaited exhibition

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Until 26 May, showing at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid is the Balthus retrospective organised jointly with the Beyeler Foundation in Basil, with the collaboration of Madrid Regional Government and the support of the painter’s family.  

This exhibition invites us to immerse ourselves in the mysteriously dramatic worlds created in his paintings, where time seems to stand still and the spectator, directly and unconditionally, is asked to invade the domestic scenes painted by the artist. These works centre on intimacy and the depth to which Balthus’s characters are lost in their own thoughts. Balthus is provocative, enigmatic and controversial because of his passion for beauty. A kind of beauty just coming into bloom.

Balthus, the controversial artist

“I see adolescent girls as a symbol. I could never paint a woman. The beauty of adolescence is more interesting. Adolescent girls stand for the future, before the transformation that will perfect their beauty. A woman has already found her place in the world, an adolescent has not. The body of a woman is already whole. The mystery is gone.”

Balthus, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (1908, Paris – 2001, Rossinière, Switzerland) admired artists such as Piero della Francesca, Giotto, Pussin, Delacroix, Courbet, Zurbarán and Goya. He didn’t belong to any artistic movement, despite living in avant garde Paris and counting among his friends contemporaries such as Giacometti, Derain, Miró and Picasso, who purchased his work, The Blanchard Children. Balthus, however, seemed to run counter to prevailing trends. He was not seduced by novelty and was of the opinion that, for an artist, “true modernity lies in reinventing the past.”

In his paintings, Balthus brings together furnishings of geometric, almost schematic sobriety, which form part of his scenes, and illusionist spaces with a Renaissance feel in an atmosphere where time might well come to a standstill. His protagonists appear to be under a spell, somewhere between reality and the realm of dreams, inviting the spectator to invade the scene and witness the moment.

Mitsou, the story of a cat

Balthus created his first artwork at 10 years of age: 40 naif, expressionistic drawings which narrate an autobiographical tale, Mitsou, the story of a cat. The prologue was written by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, at that time the lover of Balthus’s mother. This work, in which the young artist recounts the story of a boy who loses his beloved cat, illustrates the importance of childhood for both Rilke and Balthus: childhood as a “vital stage” in the search for the world’s secret essence or meaning.

Rilke had a huge impact on Balthus. In the prologue, he writes about the nature of cats, creatures that cannot be domesticated because they are never completely divested of their wild nature. After the loss of Mitsou, Balthus depicted all the cats that came into his life, a symbol — for Rilke and Balthus alike — of what we cannot possess, of that which is irrepressible in man.

What is it about Balthus’s paintings that fascinates you, perhaps confuses or even surprises you?

In 2017, controversy erupted at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. A visitor protested at what she considered the scandalous nature of Thérèse Dreaming and collected 12,000 signatures on a petition to withdraw the work. The museum countered that, “visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present, and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression.” The Met did not withdraw the work, but invited exhibition visitors to debate and reflect.
The current exhibition, before arriving to Madrid, was shown at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, where cards for visitors posed the question: “What is it about Balthus’s paintings that fascinates you, perhaps confuses or even surprises you?” I have no hesitation in responding. Personally, I have always been fascinated by Balthus’s work. It is the mystery, the magnetically theatrical feel of his works that attracts my attention. For this post, I have had to visit the exhibition various times. In  my opinion, art awakens emotions in the viewer and, at times, these can be disquieting or even painful. Balthus is a voyeuristic artist and through his paintings the viewer becomes a voyeur as well. What about you? What do you think?

Exposition: Balthus del 19 de febrero al 26 de mayo de 2019 from 19 February to 26 May in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

Curator: Raphaël Bouvier, Michino Kono and Juan ángel López-Manzanares

Photography: Oscar Rivilla

Translation: Rebekah Jane Rhodes

Music: Dr Symptosizer

Art director: Carolina Verd

Main picture: Pullover by Soeur; skirt by Humanoid courtesy from Pez

Picture 2: Yellow dress by Psophia courtesy from Finally Press; socks by Soeur courtesy from Pez; shoes by Repetto

Picture 3: Dress by Hakei; socks by Soeur courtesy from Pez; shoes by Repetto