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Balthus was born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola in Paris on February 29, 1908. Klossowski is a name that goes back for centuries in the Polish nobility, but he is also descended from the Gordons of Scotland, the most notable of whom was Lord Byron. His father was a noted critic whose house was always full of artists, writers, musicians, poets, psychologists and philosophers. For young Balthasar, the talk in the salon was an education in itself.
It was the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke who started him on his career. Balthus was eleven when he showed Rilke some drawings he had made of a pet cat that had suddenly disappeared. The poet was so enchanted that he wrote a little text to accompany the drawings, and in time they were published in a little book. Artist friends of the family, Bonnard, Derain and Vuillard, encouraged the boy, and by the time he was twenty-eight, Balthus was an established painter in his own right.
Balthus chose Gustave Courbet, the 19th century realist as his chief mentor; he was also entranced by the surrealists' probing into the unconscious. In his earlier works, though his palette was muted, the focus was as sharp as a photograph. Gradually, the brushwork loosened, until it seemed as if a veil had dropped between the artist and reality. His landscapes are as seen in a dream; his people seem to live in a trance. In a time of sexual coarseness, he is a connoisseur of rare taste and subtle control - in short, a true friend to Eros.
Balthus was celebrated as the painter about whom nothing is known, a reputation that Balthus himself repeatedly promoted. He spent a rootless childhood in Switzerland and war-ravaged Germany. He has lived in a Louis XIII chateau in Chassy, where he painted some lovely landscapes. He was director of the French Academy in Rome from 1961 to 1977. He painted surreal, austere landscapes and studies of adolescent girls in suggestive poses.
In a provocative book called "Vanished Splendors,"reviewed in the LA Times Book Review section, Balthus' mystique is pummelled; many of the facts mentioned in this biography are revealed as being fabrications. Balthus was a person of intense sensitivity and he used the veneers and layers of the stories he told as protection. He insisted that he refused all requests for interviews, photographs, etc. when in reality he used that fallacy to convince each interviewer that he/she was the chosen one. He was labeled as "conservative", but his close friends included Antonio Artaud, creater of the Theater of Cruelty, as well as Ian Fleming, Claus von Bulow, and Federico Fellini. He claimed to be a Catholic, but covered up the fact that his mother was Jewish and he was a grandson of a cantor in a Breslau synagogue. Balthus had no Scottish blood whatsoever but periodically convinced people that he was descended directly of his hero Lord Byron. ( See above.)
Outwardly, this man is every inch the worldly aristocrat who can converse brilliantly in French, Italian, German and English. He is the most painstaking of artists; he may require as many as forty sittings for a portrait, and turns out only about five new canvases a year. The paintings are not easy to forget. His young girls lounge and stretch themselves, shift uncomfortably as if painfully in doubt about what to do with their newly awakened bodies. What makes them distasteful and at the same time affecting is that the artist himself seems to know exactly the secret of their torment.
Balthus died in 2001.
Written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California.