Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, the reclusive French painter and stage designer known by the single name, Balthus, died Sunday in the Swiss mountain village of Rossiniere. He was 92, although his birth on Feb. 29 during a leap year often led him to insist he was still just a teenager.
Balthus was among the last of the School of Paris painters who dominated Western art before World War II. Although portraits and landscapes were among his many subjects, his signature works focused on the sexual awakening of adolescent girls, who were often depicted in isolation in sparsely furnished rooms assuming poses that wavered between naive innocence and erotic suggestiveness.
Throughout Balthus' long career, critics remained divided over these paintings. Do they represent a calculated sensationalism, built on an established Surrealist desire to shock bourgeois sensibilities? Or, are they a trenchant acknowledgment of psychological complexity formed in youth, appropriate to an age preoccupied with Freudian analysis of sexuality?
One who was convinced of Balthus' significance and sincerity as an artist was his friend, Pablo Picasso, who once owned Balthus' 1937 canvas "The Children" (now in the collection of the Louvre Museum). "Balthus is so much better than all these young artists who do nothing but copy me," Picasso declared. "He is a real painter."
The Klossowski family immigrated to France from East Prussia in the mid-19th century. Balthus' father, Eric, was a minor artist loosely associated with the Impressionists, but he developed into an important critic and art historian whose monograph on the devastating French caricaturist Honore Daumier became a standard text. His mother, Elizabeth Spiro, went by the name Baladine and also had literary interests; she was an influential muse to the Austrian lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke. His brother, Pierre, became a painter and writer.
When the Parisian-born Balthus was 6, his family moved to Switzerland, living principally in Berne and Geneva but making extended excursions to England. His parents encouraged his youthful interests in drawing and painting, but the boy had no formal training in art. In a home where family friends and regular guests included such prominent writers and painters as Rilke, Andre Gide, Pierre Bonnard, Andre Derain and Edouard Vuillard, being an artist simply seemed an obvious path.
Balthus' first published drawings were made when he was 11. He showed a series of sketches depicting his lost cat to Rilke, who decided to write an accompanying text and had the book published under the title, "Mitsou" (1921). The coupling of literary and artistic interests throughout Balthus' childhood and adolescence certainly influenced his later commitment to figurative painting with narrative implications, which were seen by many critics, curators and collectors as being out of step with the most adventurous currents of Modern art.
In 1924, the 16-year-old Balthus returned to Paris with the intention of becoming an artist, but he rejected the common practice of enrolling in a painting academy. Instead, he learned by copying Old Master paintings in the Louvre, especially the classically inspired pictures of Poussin. Accompanied by Gide, he traveled to Italy, where he made a special study of the provincial Tuscan Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, whose importance to Balthus' mature work is readily apparent. Piero's use of a clear geometric framework leavened by a sensuous understanding of color, scale and pattern would become a linchpin for Balthus' work.
Balthus' first one-man show was held in Paris in 1934 at the Galerie Pierre, an important showcase for Surrealist art. His association with the gallery contributed to disputes over whether his frequently dreamy, memory-laden imagery was authentically Surrealist.
The show, however, was enthusiastically received by critic and playwright Antonin Artaud, whose own writing invoked abject principles of temptation and revulsion excluded in daily life and culture. The most famous picture from the exhibition is "The Street," now in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. The large canvas shows a variety of figures who seem momentarily suspended in time while passing through an ordinary Parisian street, not unlike the Cour de Rohan near the Odeon, where Balthus found a studio. The central figure of a worker is shown carrying a plank of lumber on his shoulder, which enigmatically obliterates his face. A boy to his right seems to be marching in a trance, like a mechanical doll. At left, a young girl struggles against the apparently unwelcome advances of a Peter Lorre-like man. (The 1931 German film "M," in which Lorre played a psychopathic child-murderer, had created a sensation.)
Artaud praised the painting's formal composition and evocation of unfathomable, sphinx-like figures. Albert Camus later described looking at "The Street" as being like "gazing through glass at people petrified by some kind of enchantment, not forever, but for a split second, after which they will resume their movements."
The following year, Balthus exhibited a group of overtly erotic paintings, in which the subject of adolescent and pubescent girls was prominent. He continued to work with the subject for many years.
Through his friendship with Artaud, Balthus also became interested in designing theatrical stage sets, culminating in 1950 with a well-received production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." He also began a series of portraits in the late 1930s, the most notable being portraits of fellow painters Andre Derain and Joan Miro.
In 1961, French minister of culture Andre Malraux appointed Balthus director of the French Academy in Rome, where he remained until his retirement in 1977. During his tenure, he renovated and restored the Villa Medici, where the academy is housed, and its elaborate gardens. He also traveled in Japan, where a young woman named Setsuko Ideta became first his model and later his second wife. Stanislas and Thadee, his two grown sons by Antoinette de Watteville, whom he had married in 1937, were joined in 1973 by a daughter, Harumi.
Balthus' production slowed to a crawl during his years in Rome, and after his retirement he lived mainly in seclusion in Switzerland.
Balthus showed periodically at New York's Pierre Matisse Gallery. His work was the subject of a 1956 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and solo shows were held at London's Tate Gallery (1968), Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou (1983) and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (1984). A survey of more than 60 drawings was mounted at the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica in 1999.