We are tempted to think that all the really great French artists of the twentieth century are all dead. Wrong! There is at least one still one alive and kicking...though at the age of 91, not as sharply as he once did. Balthasar Klossowski was born on February 29, 1908. That's leap year day. He's fond of telling everyone that makes him only 22. He lives with his Japanese wife, Setsuko Ideta, who is in her mid-fifties and also a painter of some note. They live in an old Chateau near the Swiss village of Rossiniere. The place is so big it used to be a hotel. And unlike many of his contemporaries, such as
Dali, Picasso, Miró, and Matisse, he always tended to shun the limelight, often retreating into near obscurity, proud of the fact that he has never visited the United States, even to attend one of several retrospectives of his work here. If the name, Klossowski, doesn't ring a bell, maybe it's because he's come to be known simply as Balthus.
Balthus first gained notice in the 1930s for his sometimes shocking modern variations of the work of artists such as Masaccio, Poussin, della Francesca, and Masolino. His 1933 work, The Street bears witness to several of these influences. But it was his 1934 painting, The Guitar Lesson, depicting a young girl, naked below the waist, draped over the knees of a bare-breasted woman that first brought his work to the attention of the art world. He freely admits it was painting to gain recognition and concedes that to some eyes it would seem to have lesbian implications little short of pornography. During the 30's, like his friend Miro, he was courted by the Surrealists, but hated vehemently its founder, Andre Breton. It was a short courtship. From there, he tended toward a path all his own, flirting with the classics in composing his paintings but bearing a somewhat oversimplified realism in terms of style.
Both his mother and father were involved in the arts. Born and raised Catholic but from Jewish ancestry (which he has tried at times to hide), his father was an art historian who wrote several books on Daumier, while his mother was a painter with a style so close to that of Pierre Bonnard it's said even Bonnard could not tell their work apart. As a child and young man he travelled broadly in Europe, studying extensively at all the museums he could find, but especially the Louvre where he not only copied his favourite paintings, but claims to have "memorised" them as well. Such rote learning is plainly evident in his work, especially his portraits, such as his 1938 portrait of Joan Miro and His Daughter, Delores. Today, he still works daily, though turning out barely one painting a year, and then only with the help of his "studio boy" (his wife). He can walk only with her aid, still chain-smokes, has failing eyesight, and hearing. But his work, and indeed his life itself, is a visible, living, breathing link to the past greatness of European painting.