The exhibition Dans la tête de Balthus at Perrotin Matignon 8, proposed by Edwart Vignot, takes a look at Balthus' creative processes, using archival footage from 1993, the works of nineteenth-century artists who influenced him, and those of his contemporaries some of whom were fellow travelers. Those overlapping inspirations are followed to the present day, attesting to Balthus's enduring influence.
“When I have finished my paintings, I put the drawings for them on the floor and walk on them until they are erased."
Balthus’ statement on the occasion of his 1956 retrospective at MoMA reflects the artist's facetiousness and the mystery with which he liked to surround his work. The numerous drawings and notebooks that escaped erasure provide a revealing view of the artist’s work in the studio: the sketchbook at the heart of the Perrotin exhibition shows the artist's inspirations, the discipline of sketching, the models taking up their poses, and the maturation of the creative process.
Born in 1908 in Paris, Balthazar (known as Balthus) and his older brother (the writer Pierre Klossowski) spent their childhood in a cosmopolitan Central-European environment between France, Germany, and Switzerland. Under the patronage of the poet Raina Maria Rilke, he published Mitsou, his first “novel without words”, in 1921. After studying under the sculptor Margrit Bay, Balthus moved to Paris in 1924. He continued his artistic training by copying the masters: Géricault who was exhibited at Galerie Charpentier in 1924 and whose Portrait of Louise Vernet as a Child he had admired in the Louvre (where he also copied Poussin), or Piero della Francesca whose motifs he studied in Arezzo two years later. Reproduction then replaced direct observation: he drew two Géricaults in 1928 and 1938, works by Goya, Rubens, and Michelangelo in the same notebook in 1937, two Courbets in the 1940s, a watercolor by Bonnard, and an etching by Hogarth. Among his inspirations, we also find Ingres, whose conception of drawing as "the probity of art" he appreciated, as well as Delacroix whose palette fascinated him as much as his romantic imagination.
A 1934 exhibition at Galerie Pierre introduced his work to the Parisian art scene of the interwar period. There he rubbed shoulders with Derain – whose portrait he painted in 1936 –, Giacometti and Gruber. After spending the war in Switzerland, where he met André Malraux, Balthus returned to work as a decorator and costume designer for the theater, particularly with Camus. His masterpieces were painted between 1930 and 1950: The Street (1933), Guitar Lesson (1934), The Mountain (1937), and The Room (1947). In 1953, he bought the Château de Chassy in the Morvan, where some of the drawings shown in the exhibition were made and kept.
Balthus' legacy owes much to his nonconformist stance and iconography, which today must be confronted without ignoring its eroticism. In 1980, the Balthus specialist Jean Clair included his work in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou on “Realisms”, part of a "general movement of returning to the figure and the real, often influenced by the classical tradition". The results of this movement are now presented at Perrotin gallery.
The exhibition, proposed by Edwart Vignot, takes a look at Balthus' creative processes, using archival footage from 1993, the works of nineteenth-century artists who influenced him, and those of his contemporaries some of whom were fellow travelers. Those overlapping inspirations are followed to the present day, attesting to Balthus's enduring influence. Based on archive photos, Chen Ke’s portraits evoke the bodies of the Neue Sachlichkeit as much as the solitude of Balthusian characters, also evident in Maxime Biou’s absorbed nudes.
A painter of closed interiors with eerie atmospheres, Balthus’ positioning of figures in bare compositions is echoed in Jens Fänge’s surrealist-tinged collages as well as in Elladj Lincy Deloumeaux’s solitary characters, or else in Malù Dalla Piccola’s Amphibie social with its striking oneirism. Jean-Philippe Delhomme’s still lifes, reclining women, and his series on the reserves of the Musée d’Orsay draw on the same sources as Balthus. This is also true for Alain Jacquet who recreates a strange version of Ingres’ The Source.
To further pursue this Balthusian trend, Perrotin commissioned seven artists to create works inspired by and in homage to the painter. His distinctive motif of the girl with a cat is taken up by Danielle Orchard, whose work reinterprets the female nude in modern painting, Korean artist GaHee Park, with her “naïve” style that is not without sexual overtones, Klara Kristalova with her feline ceramics, as well as by Charles Hascoët. Laurent Grasso continues his Studies Into the Past series by painting eyes that have seen Balthus, based on the latter’s portrait of Joan Miro and his daughter Dolores.
In the early 1960s, he was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome at the Villa Medici, which he renovated and painted (The Turkish Room) and in which he drew and photographed his models. There he organized exhibitions of his mentors (Courbet, 1969) and friends (Giacometti, 1970) and, like Ingres or Vernet before him, helped train a new generation of artists. The exhibition reconstructs the Turkish room, which was both a space portrayed and inhabited by the artist, as well as a period room in an emblematic part of the Villa Medici, now a residence for young contemporary artists.