Of all the literature written about Balthus, the most poetic by far are the beautiful essays by Albert Camus and Guy Davenport. While Camus depicts Balthus’s paintings as part of an unending process in which the figures are literally consumed by a nostalgia that embraces, as he puts it, the “paradise of childhood, green for Balthus as for Baudelaire,” Davenport places Balthus within the sophisticated tradition of modern French culture and its relationship to the world of children and adolescence, a subject which is important in Balthus’s work and which has always been controversial for the more puritanical American audiences. Yet without the tension between innocence and eroticism in his portrayal of adolescents, Balthus would have been just another minor figurative painter among the moderns.
In 1922, when he was 14, Balthus told a friend that he wanted to remain a child forever. Between 1933 and 1934, the truth of this remark painfully resurfaced in the form of 14 intense illustrations, executed in pen and ink, from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It is, however, important to keep in mind that Balthus chose to illustrate only the first part of the novel, focusing on Cathy and Heathcliff’s adolescence. The passionate relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff began during their childhood, early in the narrative; later, this attachment came to haunt them and eventually destroyed them both as adults. But for Balthus, they both remain children, never aging into damaged adults, and this, I think is essential to our understanding of Balthus’s inner reality.
That said, I do not think that the sensual impact and open eroticism of Balthus’s paintings should lead us to reduce him to a mere painter of adolescent perversion, a kind of aesthete pedophile. In fact, modern French artists and writers have always taken seriously the extremely sensitive world of children. Baudelaire once declared that “genius is childhood recaptured at will,” and of course Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu was set in motion by the sudden and unexpected release of a flood of childhood memories. More examples of this kind can be found in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grande Meaulnes, in Colette’s Le Blé en herbe, and in Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, and in cinema there is Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite, which surely inspired Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups.
For me personally, Balthus, as he portrayed himself as Heathcliff, recalls Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste in Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis. Now that I think of it, Artaud, Barrault, and Balthus, with their lean, elegant faces, do bear some resemblance to one another.
The seven Balthus paintings in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection have been installed in a small gallery in the back of the Robert Lehman wing to commemorate his death in February this year. If you come to see the Vermeer and the Delft School, do try to stop by to pay homage to the Comte de Rola.
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