Culture

Major retrospective brings Balthus back to Rome

Rome: Balthus is the subject of a major retrospective in Rome, two years after a similar show in New York sparked controversy over the French painter’s erotically charged depictions of barely pubescent girls. Nearly 15 years after his death, the collection of 150 of his works represents a return to a city where Balthus spent a chunk of his career, and to a country that inspired a passion for figurative painting that placed him outside the major modernist art movements of the 20th century.

Born Balthazar Klossowski de Rola to a France-based Polish father and Russian mother, he was director of the French Academy in Rome from 1961-77 and was largely responsible for the restoration and reorganization of its home, the Villa Medici.

Still one of the city’s landmark buildings, the Villa is playing host to a parallel exhibition which showcases some of the major works the artist completed during his time in Rome, his impact on the building and its gardens and his working environment.

The main collection is being shown at the Scuderie del Quirinale – formerly the Vatican stables, now the official residence of Italy’s president.

It features samples of work from every stage of Balthus’ career, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits as well as some of the controversial erotic pieces and numerous works featuring cats – another of the artist’s fixations.

Curator Cecile Debray said that, given the importance of the time he spent here and the impact earlier trips to Italy had on him, Balthus could virtually be considered a Roman.

“He was always fascinated both by the primitives of the Renaissance and by a certain form of classicism that was incarnated by Rome,” said Debray, describing the artist as a one-off. “He didn’t belong to any movement. He was part of the generation of surrealists but never a surrealist himself and he was without doubt the greatest figurative painter of the 20th century.

“He was born in 1908, died in 2001. He lived through the entire 20th century and remained extremely faithful to a realist form of painting, albeit a realism that absorbed a subtle and light form of fantasy. I’d say it is that which makes the poetry and uniqueness of Balthus.”

This selection is lighter on the kind of images of girls on the cusp of womanhood that led one critic, responding to the New York show, to brand Balthus “one of the creepiest figures in modern art.”

Debray acknowledges that painting “very young girls with a very strong erotic suggestion” was a defining theme of Balthus’ work, but robustly dismisses any suggestion the work could be regarded as indicative a predatory sexual interest in minors.

“Until now they never caused any debate,” she said, “but it is true that very recently we have seen some rather prudish reactions to his painting as there has been much debate around the subject of pedophilia.

“I think it is very important to recall that these are paintings, i.e. representations, and that Balthus was absolutely not a pedophile. He wanted to shake up the art world through a very intelligent use of a realism that suggests erotic or grotesque atmospheres. It is this very individual painting that still engages the public today and can also still disturb.”

“Balthus” is up at Villa Medici and the Scuderie del Quirinale until the end of January, then move to Vienna’s Kunstforum. For more, see www.villamedici.it/en/cultural-events/events-programme/2015/10/balthus/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2015, on page 11.

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