Paris-born Balthus Klossowski de Rola (1908-2001) is considered by some to be comparable to Picasso, though it was Picasso who said that Balthus was the “last great painter of the 20th century.” From Picasso’s Cubism onward, painting no longer needed to mirror the world “as seen.” Balthus, by contrast, was a classic Realist with an occasional Surrealist twinge.
At “Balthus” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, graphic Expressionism is evident in “Balthus and Mitsou” (1916), a series of ink drawings about the artist’s travels with a cat. These were published in 1921 by his mother’s lover, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Cats were Balthus’ cherished pets and subject matter, discerned in “The King of Cats” (1935), though the artist recalled that the name referred not to himself but to the character Tybalt in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
In 1926, Balthus went to Arezzo, Italy, to study the work of Renaissance master Piero della Francesca (1415-1492), namely his “The Legend of the True Cross,” an elaborate tale about the crucifixion cross. The detachment between Piero’s figure groupings, and their supposed refusal to engage one another, became an indisputable influence upon Balthus, and the remnants of this debt is played out in his paintings through the 1930s and beyond.
Balthus always denied an overt sexuality in his work but noted that young girls symbolized “an unparalleled perfect beauty.” He began using girls as subjects in the early 1930s, and “Alice in the Mirror” (1933) has a young woman in a white tunic that slips down over one breast, who standing with a foot on a chair has her crotch exposed. Frontally posed, it is the viewer who is the ostensible mirror.
His celebrated series of females — sexualized, though psychologically detached — arrived with his discovery of a Parisian neighbor, Therese. Created between 1936 and 1939, the works include “Therese Dreaming” (1938), which shows the figure reclining on a chair, her skirt hitched and underwear bared, though she turns her face away with closed eyes. For some, such work is emblematic of the obsession of an older man with a young girl, a Vladimir Nabokov Lolita-type complex. But that characterization is problematic as Balthus painted society portraits, landscapes and still-lifes all the while, and as the catalog for this exhibition points out, even female nude imagery, such as “The Room” (1947-48), seems to suggest art-historical sources such as Piero Della Francesca’s “Madonna della Misericordia” (“Virgin of Mercy,” ca.1445-50)
The later career of Balthus is less compelling — filled with too many sketches and not enough paintings. By the early 1960s, he was a weaker painter. Still, this is a large-scale retrospective to be missed with chagrin. If this does not suit your palate, though, try the “Balthus Sandwich” served at the local Shinshindo bakery chain. It’s made with Boston lettuce, ham and gherkins — apparently Balthus’ favorite snack.
“Balthus: A Retrospective” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till Sept. 7; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.city.kyoto.jp/bunshi/kmma