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We have covered quite a few artists on this website over the months, praising their artistry, talent, technique and one-and-onliness. And is it a pleasure to delve into the minds and works of such painters! Having said that, not every artist deserves the artistic pedestal they’ve been placed upon and that makes the whole thing a bit more complicated. And it’s not about the how but the what of their creations. And while it’s relatively easy to hide impure intentions in art behind the handy guise of artistic vision and taboo-breaking, there are certain red lines that simply cannot be crossed.

The artist I’m about to discuss is considered one of the most outstanding of the twentieth century and even had the rare privilege of seeing his works exhibited in the Louvre during his lifetime. Balthus, or more precisely Balthasar Kłossowski de Rola, was born in 1908 in Paris to Polish-German-Jewish roots. He discovered his passion for painting as a teenager, and his unique talent and fascination with Italian Renaissance quickly brought him recognition with the artistic milieu.

At the time of his first serious exhibition, he was only 26 and immediately sparked shock, disgust and outrage among the Parisians. Reason? The painting The Guitar Lesson showing a teacher with a naked girl lying on her lap instead of an instrument. The woman pulls the student’s hair with one hand, while the other hand weaves between her bare thighs.

The artist fought off the criticism, explaining that in his works (yes, plural), he was interested in capturing childlike innocence and the angel-like purity of spirit, and all immoral associations are due to the deviation in the very observer rather than the artist. However, looking at Thérèse Dreaming, The Golden Years, Nude with Cat, The Portrait of André Derain and many, many others, disgust can hardly be repressed. Either partly or fully naked girls, bent in erotic poses and with impassive expressions on their faces, only add to the awkwardness.

From a strictly technical point of view, Balthus’ talent and unmatched style make him an exceptional painter. And maybe we should take pride in the fact a man with Polish blood in his veins was so widely embraced in Paris, Rome and New York circles. And yet, with a portfolio as controversial as his, it’s hardly someone we would want to brag about.

Kłossowski’s paintings have been included in numerous art collections over the years. In 2017, a petition signed by over 9,000 people was submitted to the management of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The signatories demanded that the ambiguous 1938 painting Thérèse Dreaming be removed from the exhibition. The museum, however, refused to do so and the painting can be found in the collection to this day.

At this point, we may want to ask some difficult questions: How to showcase Balthus’ works, if at all? Is there a place in contemporary, socially-aware society for art that sexualizes children, even if it’s a product of a completely different era? Should these works be provided with an appropriate context in the form of captions, descriptions, warnings, or maybe stay in museum warehouses forever? I leave these questions open and invite everyone to share their thoughts in the comments section below.

transl. Jakub Majchrzak

  • The King of Cats, 1935, private collection
    The cat motif is very common in Balthus' works. He referred to himself as their king and these were not the only royal aspirations he displayed. The artist liked making his biography more colorful, linking his ancestors with the Polish nobility (hence de Rola), the French aristocracy and even the Russian royal family.