Balthus, La Toilette de Kathy, 1936, Centre Pompidou
The retrospective gets started by recalling the Balthus exhibit, in 1934, at the Galerie Pierre in Paris, the one that launched the 26-year-old painter's career. You find yourself in front of the large painting La Rue with its hieratic characters passing one another without seeing each other, submerged in their internal universes. Several of his figures were directly inspired by Piero della Francesca, for Balthus was an aristocrat, self-taught, guided by prestigious muses. Rilke was his mother's lover and told him, when he was only 14 years old, that he was a genius.The two sketches for La Rue in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art show most of the figures in flux, but the carpenter with his board is always at the center of the composition. He was the part of the painting most stable in Balthus's mind as he conceived the work.
Pierre Bonnard, a friend of his parents, advised him to train himself by copying the Louvre's Nicholas Poussin paintings. His father sent him to do as much in Arezzo, by copying the Piero della Francesca cycle on the Legend of the True Cross. So Balthus was making a conscious choice of kinship with Quattrocento Italian painting and the French classics. But he added, from a desire to provoke and make himself known, a subtle eroticism that became his hallmark. In La Rue we see a boy grabbing a girl by the waist. In the initial version of the painting, he had his hand on her sex, but in 1955 the American buyer asked him to move the wandering hand. [...]
La Toilette de Cathy was inspired by Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. The exhibit shows the entire series of his beautiful China ink drawings illustrating the book. In the painting, Balthus shows himself as Heathcliff, the impetuous valet in love with Cathy, observing the latter, shown as his great love, Antoinette de Watteville, getting dressed and painted nude in the style of Cranach. [...]
The rest is the most beautiful part of Balthus, or at least the most famous. It began in 1936 and continued through the war years, while he was living in Switzerland. He had served in the French army, but his job as a gatherer of cadavers made him sick and led him to flee to Fribourg. There he painted interior views, windowless, with adolescent models with women's bodies but with childlike innocence, with beautiful faces, with bodies that sometimes float.
There are the beautiful portraits of Thérèse Blanchard, still an adolescent of 12 or 13. The famous Thérèse rêvant is emblematic: the child-woman seems to be asleep in her seat, one leg lifted up, revealing her white panties under a red skirt arranged like a halo. It is a provocative pose for us, but not for her. Balthus places us in the position of the voyeur. In another superb portrait of Thérèse, the teenager looks at us frankly and crosses her long, bare legs. In La Victime she poses naked on a bed, with a knife at her feet.
Other paintings in the exhibit include Les Beaux jours and Patience. If you are in Cologne and see this show (open through November 4), do not miss the new stained glass window, a crazy wash of pixellated colors, just installed by Gerhard Richter in the city's cathedral (also covered by Duplat for La Libre Belgique). The Museum Ludwig also has a Gerhard Richter exhibit going on at the same time.