Balthus. Part 4. Setsuko and the latter days

The two sons of Balthus, Stanislaus and Thadée, edited a book in which they put together letters that their father had written.  The book was entitled Correspondance amoureuse avec Antoinette de Watteville 1928-1937 which was published in 2001.  One of the letters, dated August 31st 1933 was a letter from Balthus to his father in which he told of his worries about people analysing his work too much and how he tried to ensure that his depictions did not open up the possibility of various interpretations.  He wrote:

 “…The horrible danger for me, though, is to fall into the trap of becoming anecdotal, but it won’t happen…”

The Golden Days by Balthus (1944-46)
The Golden Days by Balthus (1944-46)

However, a painting he completed in 1946, entitled The Golden Days, received many interpretations which probably annoyed the artist.  The work of art can be seen in the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.    So, should one just look at the painting and not try to guess what was in the mind of Balthus when he painted this picture?  Before us is a good looking teenage girl slumped contentedly on a small chaise longue. In her left hand she holds a white hand mirror.  The mirror is bathed in light from the window behind her.  She studies her own reflection.  As we have seen in many of Balthus’ paintings her legs are spread wide apart and her short skirt has ridden up exposing her thighs.  Her bodice lies open and has slipped off her right shoulder.  Around her neck we see a pearl necklace.  On her feet is a pair of white slippers.  Behind her there is a wooden table upon which is a white bowl.  In the background there is a roaring fire being tended to by a man who is stripped to the waist.  So, do we take the painting at face value as Balthus says we should do, or do we start to interpret what we see before us?  That’s your choice but I would like to quote a passage in an art essay written by Andre Pijet about the works of Balthus and, in particular, his interpretation of The Golden Days.  He was adamant that Balthus’ paintings need to be decoded and by doing so it would reveal the meaning of each element.   Pijet wrote:

“…The artwork shows a young girl stretched comfortably on a small sofa and she is preoccupied by looking at the reflection of herself in the white mirror, which she keeps in her left hand. The mirror symbolizes the world, life, femininity, love, and vanity. The pearl necklace on her neck refers to the virginity, health, perfection, and preciousness. The right hand hung down looks as it is suspended in the air. Her torso is partly uncovered suggesting a delicate touch of feminine coquetry. The girl’s legs are spread in provocative invitation of sexual curiosity. Together, the white slippers on her feet, the white mirror and the white pillow behind her head as well as the white bowl on the table completed with the white light projected from the window situated in the back symbolize the innocent purity of the young female beauty. The entire room is divided by the two sources of light. The white light coming from the window on the left is mixed with the red reflections projected by the chimney. Both these lights blend together exactly in the area of the girl’s spread legs suggesting the boundaries between the innocence and the sexual initiation. The sofa itself has a shape of the hiking shoe suggesting that the young beauty is on her way approaching the sexual fire of her first erotic experience. The man on the right is preparing the ground for her erotic enlightenment by warming up the room. On the left side of the chimney, a small statue with phallic forms is standing. Just beside the sculpture the log tongs are leaning against the chimney surface. The log tongs have the shape of female crotch as well as the form of infant what symbolize the process of future maternity. The chimney itself suggests the female sexual organs and the small in posture man working hard to keep the fire on representing symbolically the process of sexual intercourse. The man with his right hand covered with the white glow is touching the chimney that suggests clearly the act of defloration. The massive quantities of symbolic information, which is easily readable after close examination of all elements of the painting, refer to the passage of time from the childhood to the adolescence and the first encounter with sexuality…”

It is interesting to note that Sabine Rewald, the foremost exponent on Balthus and his art, in her book Balthus: Cats and Girls, which was published in conjunction with the 2013 Balthus exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, never tried to interpret this work of art.

The sitter for this painting was fourteen year old Odile Bugnon and in an interview with Sabine Rewald in 1986, the now married Odile Emery, said that her family of farmers leased the farmstead, part of the Le Guinzet estate outside of Fribourg, from the baron de Cholet and Balthus had been commissioned to paint a portrait of the baron and his two daughters.  On one of his last visits Balthus saw Odile playing with some of the baron’s children.  He asked if she would like to pose for him.  She agreed and Balthus then attained permission from her mother.  When she arrived for her sitting Balthus was horrified to see that her mother had taken her to the hairdressers and dressed her up in a pretty dress and black slippers and stockings.   Balthus was appalled by the transformation and got Odile to change into the clothes we now see in and carefully posed her in the depiction we now see before us.

Although we see Odile’s right hand flopped downwards and her fingers pointing towards the floor, in his original version, those fingers were stroking a cat, which was later over-painted shown above.  Odile remembers the setting and the pose she was told to take by Balthus.  She remembered the roaring fire but said there was no man tending it.   As Balthus never completed the work until after he had moved to Villa Diodati in Coligny a small town outside of Geneva in October 1945, Odile never saw the finished work.

Whilst living in Fribourg, Antoinette gave birth to their first son, Stanislas, in October 1942 and in February 1944 their second son Thadée was born.  In March 1946 having spent the previous six months in Coligny Balthus and his family ended their Swiss exile and returned to Paris.

The Room by Balthus (1948)
The Room by Balthus (1948)

On returning to his Paris studio at 3 cours de Rohan,  he worked on his large painting 190 x 160cms (75 x 63in.), which was entitled The Room.  He started the work in 1947 and completed it a year later.  It is a painting of contrasts.  What is the setting?  If we look to the left, we see a fire and an ornate mirror, so maybe it is the salon but if we look to the right we see a cooking stove, a towel rack and a speckled water pitcher, so is it the kitchen?  Maybe it is a forerunner of a “kitchen diner” !  The two characters depicted in the work are completely dissimilar. Kneeling on the floor and resting her elbow on a chair is a plainly dressed girl who had been reading a book, which lies open on the floor.  She is looking up at the other woman, a colossal nude.  This woman has long reddish blonde hair and a very thickset body.   She has a white towel draped over left shoulder and arm like a cape.  The open palm of her right hand points towards her kneeling companion in a gesture of an introduction.  What is the relationship between the two figures?  Are they mistress and servant?

Madonna della Misericordia by Piero della Francesca (1462)
Madonna della Misericordia by Piero della Francesca (1462)

Some art historians have said that the stance and size of the nude woman reminds them of the 1462 religious work by Piero della Misericordia, entitled Polyptych of the Misericordia.  The centre panel of this polyptych showed a very large depiction of the Madonna surrounded by a number of much smaller, in size, followers.  Balthus who spent time in Italy in 1926 copying paintings may have come across this religious work, which is housed in the Pinacoteca Communale in Sansepolcro, a town some 70 kilometres east of Siena.

In 1947 Antoinette left Paris with her two sons who were aged three and five.  Balthus had decided that his marriage to Antoinette was at an end and their best course of action was to amicably separate.  However, it was almost twenty years later before the couple divorced.

The Card Players by Balthus (1950)
The Card Players by Balthus (1950)

In 1950 Balthus completed another painting depicting the game of cards.  This time he has shown two players, a girl and a young man.  The painting is simply entitled The Card Players and is housed in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.  The setting is an unadorned dark room.  The painting depicts two youngsters, a boy and a girl, playing cards at a table on which a candlestick stands. The room is lit up by light which emanates from the right-hand side of the room and which illuminates various objects and, in some way, seems to add to the mystery of the picture.  We get the impression from the smile on the girl’s face that she is winning and the boy is losing despite his attempt to cheat, as seen by the card hidden behind his back.  The depiction of the boy by Balthus is unusual as we see him both in a frontal and profile view.

In January 1949 Balthus’ father Erich died.   Balthus spent a lot of time in the early 1950’s designing theatrical sets and costumes for plays, operas and ballets.  In 1961 having achieved so much in theatre work he was appointed director of the Académie de France in Rome by his close friend André Malraux, the French Minister of Cultural Affairs.  Balthus was to remain in that post and live in Rome until 1977.

Setsuko in 1991
Setsuko in 1991

In 1962 Malraux asked Balthus to go to Japan as France’s official “ambassador of art” in order to organize a major exhibition of Japanese art to be held in Paris.  During that visit he met Setsuko Ideta, a nineteen year old, first-year student at the Tokyo Sophia Jesuit research University.  She was the same age as his first son Stanislaus!  Setsuko served as the English translator to the Balthus’ group who were touring the temples in Kyoto.

Setsuko remembered her first meeting with Balthus:

“…We met we spoke, they quarrelled…”

Balthus told her he was 50.  But as Setsaku said, it was not true, he was 54.   It has to be remembered Balthus was a Leap Year child, born on February 29th.  The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who had an affair with Balthus’ mother, told Balthus that having a leap-year birthday meant he’d slipped through a crack in time, into a “kingdom independent of all the changes we undergo”, and so Balthus liked to divide his real age by four, so allowing himself to admit to being 50 was somewhat of a compromise!  In his book Balthus: A Biography, the author, Nicholas Fox Weber described Setsuko:

“…Setsuko was the embodiment of much that he cherished: female beauty, youthful vitality,piercing intelligence and the charms and diffidence of the Orient…”

Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola
Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola

Setsuko was steeped in her Japanese heritage and came from the Samurai family of Kyushu.  She was poised and confident.  Balthus and Setsuko were married on October 3rd 1967.  Balthus and his first wife, Antoinette, were divorced in 1966 after twenty years of separation.

Balthus' daughter Harumi
Balthus’ daughter Harumi

In September 1969, Balthus’ mother Baldine died in Paris, aged 83.  In April 1973 Setsuko gave birth to a daughter, Harumi.  In 1977, Balthus  leaves the position of director of the Académie de France and after living sixteen years at the Villa Medici in Rome, he moves back to Switzerland.  Balthus had served two terms as director and was reluctant to leave the Italian capital but at that time there were many high profile kidnappings and he and his wife believed they may one day become targets and so it was the time to leave Balthus’ beloved Rome.

Balthus with his wife, Setsuko, their daughter, Harumi, and granddaughters at the Grand Chalet in Rossinière
Balthus with his wife, Setsuko, their daughter, Harumi, and granddaughters at the Grand Chalet in Rossinière

Balthus, Setsuko and their four year old daughter Harumi went to live in Le Grand Chalet at Rossinière.  It was a magnificent building.  It was the largest known all-wooden structure of its kind in Europe, it was built between 1752 and 1756 by Jean-David Henchoz.

It was to remain Balthus’ home until he died there in August 2001, aged 93.  Balthus had been taken ill but left the hospital the night before he died to see once more his large chalet at Rossinière.  The funeral was held in the Swiss village of Rossinière, and was attended by a number of high-profile guests, including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the supermodel Elle McPherson and Bono. The French and Italian governments also sent representatives.  After the ceremony in the village church, two horses pulled a carriage with the coffin draped in black. The artist was buried at the foot of a hill on a plot owned by the Balthus Foundation, some 300 metres from the chalet.      The Irish singer Bono, who was Harumi’s godfather sang at Balthus’ funeral.

Love him and his artwork or hate him for his use of young girls as models, I have found his life story fascinating and can understand why he was one of France’s most famous twentieth century artists.

Balthus. Part 1. Mitsou and the King of the Cats

Balthus aged 88
Balthus aged 88

In my next few blogs, I am looking at the life and art of the French born painter Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, more simply known as Balthus.   Some of his artwork shocked the world and I have to warn you that some of his paintings you may find disturbing, and have often been termed offensive and disgusting.  These will appear in Part 2.

So what do we know about Balthus’ life?  The answer is “very little” and that is exactly how the artist wanted it to be.  As far as his life story was concerned, he wanted to preserve his anonymity, so much so, when negotiating with the Tate Modern, which was about to launch a retrospective of his work in 1968, he sent the curator of the exhibition a telegram which read:

“..NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS.  BEGIN:  BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN.  NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES.  REGARDS.  B…”

Balthus was born in Paris at the end of February 1908.  His father Erich Klossowski was a noted German historian and painter, who had come from a family which belonged to Polish nobility, and whose coat of arms was known as the Rola, which was used by a number of szlachta families.  The szlachta was a legally institutional privileged noble class and Balthus added the title “de Rola” to his name.  Balthus’ mother was Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, but as a painter, used the name Baladine Klossowska.  She gave birth to two sons, Pierre in 1905 and Balthus in 1908.  Pierre went on to become a much heralded writer and philosopher.  Balthus and his family lived in rue Boissonade in Paris’ 14th arrondissement.  He and his brother had a privileged upbringing as his parents were part of the cultural elite in Paris and would entertain many of the cultural icons of the time such as the French writer and playwright, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, the Nobel prizewinning writer, and the French painter, Pierre Bonnard.  The family, who held German citizenship, along with Balthus’ uncle, the painter, Eugen Spiro, had to move out of Paris at the onset of World War I and they travelled to Berlin where Balthus’ father worked at the Lessing theatre as a stage and costume designer.

In 1917, Balthus’ mother and father separated and she took her sons, Pierre and Balthus, away from Berlin and set up home in Berne.  Later she and her two sons move to Conches, a small town just south of Geneva, and stayed with friends before renting a two-room apartment in rue Pré-Jerôme in 1920.  Balthus, as a child loved to draw and it was in 1919, whilst living in Conches, that, at the age of eleven, he produced a book of forty graphite and ink drawings.  The drawings were based on the experiences he had, when he fell in love with a stray cat which he called Mitsou and through his drawings he tells of his happiness derived from his feline friend and the sadness of losing his new friend.  It was in 1919 when Balthus’ mother Elisabeth first met Rainer Maria Rilke in Geneva.  He was a writer and poet.  They quickly became lovers, a relationship which lasted until he died of leukaemia in December 1926.  It was an unusual relationship as Rilke said he needed his own space when he worked and so the couple did not live together on a permanent basis.

Mitsou
Mitsou

On one of Rilke’s visits to the Klossowski home to see Elizabeth he saw the Mitsou drawings  done by her son, Balthus,  and was he was so impressed by them that  he offered to write the preface for the book and arranged for it to be printed in 1921 under the title Mitsou, Quarante images (Mitsou, Forty Images).  The set of forty drawings were an animated tale of how he found a cat on a park bench.

Finding the cat
Finding the cat

In the opening drawing of the set we see the boy tentatively leaning towards the cat making sure he doesn’t scare it off.  Look how Balthus has given the boy an air of astonishment as he looks at the cat, by shaping the mouth, raising the thick eyebrows and the angling the chin.  In complete contrast, the cat looks out at us in a statuesque sphinx-like way, totally unfazed by the boy’s approach.  Although the story is about him and the cat, Balthus has added other elements to the drawing.  The setting is a courtyard which is separated from a house by a wall and a gate.  He has also included vines climbing up the wall as a backdrop.

Losing the cat
Losing the cat

From this time on, Balthus love of cats was shown by the number of times he depicted felines in his artwork.  Drawing number 40 of Mitsou, the last one of the set, depicts Balthus crying when he realises the cat has run off and his feline friend has gone forever.

 In the summer of 1919 the family spend time in the picturesque Swiss village of Beatenberg which lies between the Bernese Alps and the still blue waters of Lake Thun.  It is whilst here that Balthus works as an assistant to the painter, Margrit Bey.  For next four summers Balthus and his family would return to Beatenberg and work alongside Margrit.  Between 1919 and 1921, during their stay in Conches both Balthus and his brother study at the College Calvin in Geneva.  For Balthus, the years between 1919 and 1921 were some of the best times he ever had and he was always pleased to recall those days

Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)
Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)

His mother was in love with Rilke and he was devoted to her.   Balthus also bonded with Rilke and he received nothing but compliments for his artwork from the writer.  To Balthus, Rilke was almost a surrogate father.

In April 1921 Baladine and her two sons move back to Berlin and go to live with her brother Eugen and later stay with her sister, Gina Trebicky.  Elisabeth had some of her paintings accepted for an exhibition of female artists at Galerie Fleckhtheim in Berlin and it is at this time that she is persuaded to change her name as an artist to Baladine.

In 1934, Balthus produced his first large scale painting entitled The Street.  It measured 195 x 240cm (77 x 94 ins).  He had already painted another version of this five years earlier, just before he journeyed to Morocco but some of the characters had changed.  The setting in both works is the rue Bourbon-le Château.

The Street by Balthus (1929)
The Street by Balthus (1929)

In this earlier version, seen above in black and white, we see a grandfather figure in top hat and topcoat holding firmly onto two young children as they cross the road.  The boy, in shorts, wears a hat with a pom-pom whilst the young girl dressed in a skirt and flowered hat.  In the later version this trio has been replaced by two other characters, which caused the outrage!

The Street by Balthus (1933)
The Street by Balthus (1933)

The 1934 version was one of a number of his works of the time which shocked the audience at Balthus’ first solo exhibition which was held in the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  The people in the street seemed to have stopped and are frozen in mid-flow, almost trance-like.   For this work Balthus retained the baker, the workman crossing the road with a plank of wood on his shoulder along with the woman carrying a young child, albeit now looking like a little man.   In this version we also have a young girl, racquet in hand, chasing a ball across the street. Again although possessing the height of a child she seems to be more like a small woman.   Balthus was questioned about that but he simply refused to elaborate more than saying “she is simply a little girl”.  The same boy, as seen in the first version, is still strolling haughtily towards us but is set back slightly in comparison to the first version.  However the major change is the inclusion of the two figures in the left foreground.  These two replace the elderly gentleman and the two young children.  The man tries to grope the girl as she passes him by and she raises her arm maybe in shock or maybe to strike her assailant.

Pierre Loeb the owner of Galerie Pierre said that having looked at the painting described it as a scene of anguished phantoms sleepwalking in a strange dreamlike state.  Balthus believed Loeb’s comments were nonsensical and although Loeb exhibited Balthus’ art in his gallery bringing him to the notice of the public, Balthus loathed him and termed him a “typical outsider who lacked true vision of what really mattered to painters”.

The painting was bought from Galerie Pierre in 1937 by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts.  However the painting was so controversial and so many of his friends disliked the sexual connotation that Soby wrote to Balthus in 1955 and asked him to retouch the gesture of the figures on the left.  Soby was surprised when Balthus agreed and wrote:

“…I used to like shocking people, but now it bores me…”

When Soby died in 1979 this painting was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)
The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)

I am concluding this first part of my look at the life and art of Balthazar Klossowski by showing you the painting, the title of which the artist gave himself.  This is just one of three self portraits completed by Balthus.  The title of the 1935 painting was King of the Cats. Balthus was twenty-seven years of age when he painted this work.  It was painted in his Paris studio in rue Furstenberg.  The studio, which he bought in May 1933 was a fifth floor attic room  It was also the first property he ever purchased and  he remained here until October 1935.

Balthus had always had a love of cats and in this work we see him standing in a somewhat arrogant and aloof pose, with his beloved cat lovingly rubbing itself against his leg.  Because the view of the artist is seen from below it elongates him and adds to his imperious stance.  He is dressed in saffron pants, white shirt and red tie and a black jacket.  On his feet is a pair of pointed black shoes.  On the floor, to his left, is a stone slab leaning against a high stool with the inscription:

A PORTRAIT OF

H.M.

THE KING OF THE CATS

Painted by

HIMSELF

MCMXXXV

Balthus has added a little humour to the painting by placing a lion tamer’s whip on top of the stool !

It was in that year that Balthus started to sign his letters “King of the Cats”, the first being a letter, written in January 1935, to his soon to be wife, Antoinette de Watteville.

There is an air of self confidence about the figure and this has been put down to 1935 being a good year for him after the turbulent times of 1934 when his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, featuring many depictions of pre-teen girls in erotic poses,  scandalised the critics and public alike.  The fall out over these paintings made Balthus give up painting for almost a year.

In the second part of my look at Balthus I will focus on the paintings which caused such a furore when exhibited in Galerie Pierre in Paris.

Besides information about Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two excellent books which I can highly recommend.

Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art standing next to Balthus painting entitled Thérèse

First there is the book Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.