We have a surplus of vaguely boring art world bad boys running around these days, but how many genuine degenerates do we have? I mean, real perverts?
I'm always fascinated by people whose consummate skill manages to nix out any (or most) questions of dangerous character. Though controversy followed Balthus throughout his long career, we kept looking and marveling at his skills of composition and color, jarred, annoyed and disturbed by his choice of adolescent-girl models ... but still, we looked.
He is both easy and hard to love, but unquestionably interesting to look at. These photos of Balthus were taken at his home, the Chateau de Chassy, in 1956:
(Note the claws.) And with his niece, Frederique Tison:
"When Balthus was 38, he took as his mistress the 16-year-old Laurence Bataille; at 48, he chose his stepniece, Frederique Tison, also 16; at 59, he married Setsuko Ideta, age 25. Weber reports all this and more, even Balthus's seduction of his sons' teenage girlfriends and his crude contention that at 13, a girl was 'an old camel,' past her prime."
Yes, it can't be denied; old lech he was.
No defense of his character is possible. It seems inappropriate to say anything about Balthus without acknowledging this.
His taste was particular to the point of crystallization, and he had strong feelings about his surroundings. I searched in vain for images of his renovation of the Villa Medici, undertaken when he was director of the French Academy in Rome; he stripped the rooms to nothing, leaving a barren expanse that resembled the inside of an abandoned seashell. These photos were taken before the Roman years.
At Chateau de Chassy:
"It was often thought that Balthus liked very big houses because he hankered after ostentatious living. But this was not the case. What he liked was very big houses in which he could live almost alone and see no one. If the house was isolated, his happiness was complete."
Like so many things, my first exposure to Balthus' work was through the Art Institute of Chicago. Patience, of 1943:
Those stripes! And the way they terminate at the rail is sublime, almost minimal. I love the painting as a whole, but have found this detail enthralling since the age of six. Ditto the wallcovering in Nude Before a Mirror of 1955, in the Metropolitan.
I also like Nude Before a Mirror because it seems to capture a moment of self-recognition more than a moment of voyeurism. In person its surface is matte, even chalky, and seems to glow from within, like alabaster or live flesh. She is effervescent, aging and evaporating before our eyes.
I don't think Damian Hirst is quite there, yet.