BALTHUS, THÉRÈSE, 1938 © Balthus, Foto: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florenz | BALTHUS, LA PARTIE DE CARTES, 1948 – 1950 © Balthus | BALTHUS, PASSAGE DU COMMERCE-SAINT-ANDRÉ, 1952–1954 © Balthus; Foto: Mark Niedermann
The emotionally charged narratives of Polish-French painter Balthus, an anti-modernist beloved by modernists, are poignant, loaded, somewhat cryptical and sensuous. Too often they serve as backdrops to foregrounding the provocative undertones of his infamous mise-en-scénes where young girls recline in between states of dream-like repose and enraptured reawakening. Balthus himself dismissed attributing any perceived eroticism to viewers with unclean minds. What makes his work actual and up-to-date is the way it reconfigures certain moral dilemmas in light of different cultural moments, and raises the question about the role of censorship in relation to artistic freedom. Born Balthasar Klossowski, he cultivated an air of mystery and myth, secluding himself in old-world country houses and castles in France, Italy, and Switzerland. A new retrospective at Fondation Beyeler reaffirms the artist’s long-standing relationship to Switzerland and seeks to expose a multifaceted legacy by bringing to light a broader picture. It seems as if Balthus, who lived through nearly the entire 20th century, delighted in perfecting a visual language that feels outside history, nurturing an eccentric detachment from modernism. Taking the little known and monumental work Passage du Commerce-Saint-Andréas a focal point, the exhibition manifests the artist’s intensive engagement with the dimensions of space and time, as a way of distilling and constructing the relationship between the figure and object. The ethos of our age aspires to respond with action to subjects we find unsettling, disturbing or troubling but the work of art cannot be tamed, only responses to it.