La Lecon de guitare, 1933
My choice this month is Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola,1908-2001). This brilliant artist is one of the great Modernists yet he remains hugely controversial, not least for his subject matter.
Balthus was of Polish extraction. As a student he studied tempera wall paintings in Florence and from 1930 to 1932 lived in Morocco.
He moved to Paris in 1933 where La Lecon de guitare brought him instant fame - and notoriety!
Although primarily known as a painter of young, pubescent girls in 'erotic' poses, he was also an accomplished landscape artist, with a delicate colour sense and fine draftsmanship
I particularly like the above landscape, begun in 1941 and
finished in 1945
La Sortie du bain, 1957
However, it is a painter of the female form that Balthus is best known.
This beautiful painting (above) of a young girl emerging from her bath is equal, in my view, to anything by Matisse or even the late chalk or crayon drawings by Degas
Nu devant la cheminee, 1955
I have only ever seen one drawing (crayon on paper) by Balthus and it was this elegant study of a young girl in front of her mirror. The simplicity of its design and the clean lines of both figure and room
make for an enchanting picture
It also reveals a key component of the girls in Balthus' work, namely their utter self absorption in themselves
Although some critics have considered this painting (above) erotic, it is the girl's absorption in her pet cat that gives the languor of her pose its naturalness
True, there is always a hint of voyeurism in these paintings and the suggestion of a (female) figure by the window in the finished oil painting, probably gazing at the girl, adds unease to this otherwise 'innocent' picture
La chambre, 1952-53
The idea of a nude figure being deliberately exposed to view is more explicit in the above painting.
Here a strange, dwarf-like female opens the curtain, flooding the room with saffron-coloured light that exposes the girl in what could be a post-masturbatory sleep
While, to a third party (i.e the viewer) this might make this picture blatantly erotic, in my view it represents the girl's possible guilt and her own fear of exposure at her emerging sexuality
This famous painting of a young girl exposing her legs whilst reclining on a bench is frequently seen merely as an erotic pose designed to titilate the viewer
In my view this is completely wrong.
Again, it is the girl's self absorption that renders her pose innocent and little more than someone aware, perhaps, of her own burgeoning sexuality - something any parent will recognize in their own daughters
Which brings us back to The guitar lesson
The notion that the girl is somehow being abused is in my view completely wrong.
The child's languid pose, peaceful smile (her eyes are closed, as if she were asleep) and left hand straying towards the woman's exposed right breast suggest to me that this is a dream in which the girl herself is fantasizing about her 'teacher'
A crayon sketch dated 1949 (some fifteen years after La Lecon ) yet called Etude pour La Lecon de guitare is more difficult to explain
Here a male figure pulls the girl's clothing away with his teeth, his eyes resolutely fixed on her genital area while his right hand grasps the girl's arm in a dominant grip
Assuming the date (1949) is correct, then this is an entirely different treatment of the subject and one which some of us might legitimately find disturbing
Balthus died in February, 2001.
He was revered by other great artists - including Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and writers such as Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau and Andre Breton
FootnoteIllustrations for the above article are taken from Balthus by Jean Clair and published by Flammarion in 2001
To find this book and others, click on the link below