When London's Tate gallery was preparing a retrospective of Balthus' works in 1968, organizers wanted to write a tribute to the artist and asked for his input. "Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known," he replied.
That analysis reflects Balthus' lifelong elusiveness and explains why the French artist, who died in Switzerland in February 2001 at the age of 92, remained a mystery to all but a few intimate friends. Even his name and title Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola were a subject of speculation, with some saying the title was fabricated by the artist himself. Villagers in the Swiss hamlet of Rossinière, where the painter had lived since 1977, reportedly believed that Balthus was merely a retired businessman who painted as a hobby.
But although the painter carefully cultivated and guarded this aura of mystery, his elusiveness did not mean that his works were free of discernible artistic influences. In 1999 Balthus planned an exhibit that would shed light on his psyche and sources of inspiration. The concept for the exhibition given form in "Balthus: From Piero della Francesca to Alberto Giacometti," now at the Jenisch Museum in Vevey, Switzerland was to show how other artists influenced his style. The painter did not live to see the Vevey exhibit, but many of the 147 works on display show an uncanny synergy of styles between Balthus' figurative representations and those of artists he admired Italian Renaissance painters Piero della Francesca and Masaccio, and contemporaries Pierre Bonnard, René Auberjonois and Giacometti among others.
The exhibit, on until Aug. 25, does not seek to reaffirm Balthus' reputation as one of the 20th century's greatest figurative painters. Rather, it shows, step by step, how a self-taught teenager searched for his own artistic identity in an era when surrealism captivated Europe and representational art was considered old-fashioned. But Balthus believed abstract art to be too easy and limited, and he remained true to the traditional techniques of the European grand masters.
In 1924, on the advice of the French painter Pierre Bonnard, Balthus headed to the Louvre to copy the works of the 17th century artist Nicolas Poussin. A trip to Italy followed, and Balthus spent his time there studying and copying early Renaissance frescoes. Four of the paintings on display in Vevey are Balthus' copies of frescoes by 15th century artists Piero della Francesca and Masaccio. At first glance, Balthus' versions seem to be exact replicas, but it soon becomes clear that he was more interested in the composition of figures than in detail or color. By the early 1930s, Balthus' own incisive, precise and sometimes rigorous style started to emerge, but he continued to be inspired by works of other artists. For example, Balthus' 1948 sketch for Femme couchèe was based on Jaques-Louis David's 1819 Etude des têtes. The woman in the Balthus drawing has the same wistful, melancholic look as characters in David's work, but her contours are softer and the effect more ethereal. In 1955 Balthus painted Le Lever, a portrait of a woman in the process of waking up, her arm outstretched. The position and the outline of her body bear striking similarity to Caravaggio's 1602 work, Amor Victorious.
But Balthus was also influenced by contemporary artists. Swiss sculptor and painter Giacometti was Balthus' friend and adviser, and the two shared similiar artistic visions borne out of disenchantment with the purely imaginary aspects of surrealism. Balthus' 1975 drawing, Nu au foulard, is similar in style and technique to Giacometti's 1955 Atelier avec chaise. Both artists used erasers on the drawings to soften and lighten the shapes and to bring out the illusion of movement.
The exhibit also focuses on how Balthus' personal style changed over the years. As he became more established, the romanticism and passion of his earlier works became more subdued. Pastoral landscapes in muted shades such as the 1972 Monte Calvello became as iconoclastic as controversial paintings and drawings of scantily clad prepubescent girls, which became his trademark.
Still, even as his fame grew, Balthus remained an enigma. This is how the artist appears in the 1935 self-portrait, The King of Cats. Although the exhibition makes it clear that Balthus admired and drew inspiration from other artists, this striking portrait of a detached, aloof artist says a lot about his power as a unique force in contemporary art.