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Prominent Poles

Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola) Polish-French painter

Photo of Balthazar Klossowski, painter

Born:  February 29, 1908, Paris, France

Died:   February 17, 2001, Rossiniere, Switzerland

Summary. Considered one of the world's greatest realist painters an esteemed Polish/French modern artist whose work was ultimately anti-modern. Balthazar Klossowski (Polish-French), known as Balthus, is largely regarded as one of the twentieth century's most important painters-- as well as the most scandalous. His dreamlike canvases populated with pubescent girls in provocative poses garnered him both praise and scorn. He is also a painter of landscapes and still life. Despite this traditionalism an element of menace haunts many of Balthus's paintings and his work has always presented something of an enigma. French President Jacques Chirac said he learned of Balthus's death with "particular emotion" and described him as "one of the most eminent artists of the 20th Century," a man who "detested the banal above all".
Early days. There was some uncertainty over his name. Balthus called himself Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, saying that he came from an ancient Polish family whose male members had the rank of count. But gossip persisted that he invented the title and Rola was merely an adaptation of the Lake Geneva village of Rolle where Balthus lived with his first wife. Balthus came into the world as Balthasar Klossowski, the second son of Polish artist immigrants. The artist's father, Erich Klossowski, a noted art historian whose study of Honoré Daumier (1908) remains a work of reference until today, painter and sometimes stage designer, while his mother, Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro called Baladine, a Pole of Jewish faith, was a painter who exhibited her work under a number of masculine aliases. Balthus' older brother was the writer and painter Pierre Klossowski. In Paris, the parents of Balthus led one of the leading salons, frequented by artists like Monet, Pierre Bonnard, Derain.Paul Valéry and André Gide. When the artist was 9 years old, his parents, who had at one time obtained German citizenship (Poland did not exist at that time), were deported from France as "hostile immigrants", and regardless of their political sympathies were forced to move to Berlin. The family's sudden and abject poverty led to a split between the parents, with Balthus and his brother accompanying his mother first to Bern, then to Geneva, Switzerland. Balthus's mother, soon set up housekeeping with the wealthy German poet Rainier Marie Rilke, who became the young artist's benefactor. In 1921 Rilke assured the successful publication of Balthus's work by adding his own text (in German and French) to a collection of 40 ink drawings the 12-year-old artist had devoted to the loss of his pet cat. The collection (and the cat) was named "Mitsou" and at Rilke's urging was reviewed by some of the great art and literary critics of the day. By 1924 Rilke had sponsored the young Balthus's return to France, introducing him to the influential figures of Paris art and literature as well as teachers. In his formative years his art was also sponsored by Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. Jean Cocteau, who was friend of the Klossowskis, found some inspiration for his novel Les Enfants Terribles (1929) on his visits to the family. In 1926, Rilke sponsored a nearly year-long tour of study for the artist in Italy, which came to an abrupt end when Rilke died.
Life and Work. In 1930 and 1931, Balthus served in the French military in Morocco. In 1932, he returned to Paris, where he created his illustrations for Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. He also met Pierre Jean Jouve and André Derain. In 1933, he opened an atelier at Rue de Furstemberg 4, where he created his two versions of La Rue. The painting hangs today in New York's Museum of Modern Art. As he matured in the early 1930s, Balthus' paintings often depicted pubescent young girls in erotic and voyeuristic poses. One of his most notorious works was The Guitar Lesson (1934), which caused controversy in Paris due to its depiction of a sexually explicit lesbian scene featuring a young girl and her teacher. In the early 30s, he held exhibitions displaying his paintings of young women, groups of people and scenes from both the town and countryside, like La Rue from 1933 and La Montagne in 1937. In 1933, Balthus also worked on the stage set of Fledermaus in a production by Max Rheinhardt at the Théâtre Pigalle and, in the following year, the Parisian Galérie Pierre showed the first individual exhibition dedicated to the works of Balthus.
In 1937 he married Antoinette de Watteville, whom in 1924 was his model for a series of portraits. They had two children, Stanislas (known as Stachou – a phonetically spelled Polish nickname Stasio) and Thadee. In 1938, the New York gallery Pierre Matisse organized its first Balthus exhibition. In 1939, Balthus was conscripted into the military in the Alsace, but was released shortly afterwards. Early on his work was admired by writers and fellow painters, especially by André Breton and Pablo Picasso. His circle of friends in Paris included the novelist Pierre-Jean Jouve, the photographers Josef Breitenbach and Man Ray, Antonin Artaud, and the painters André Derain, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti (one of the most faithful of his friends). In 1948, another friend, Albert Camus, asked him to design the sets and costumes for his play L'Etat de Siège (The State of Siege, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault.
In 1953 he moved into the Chateau de Chassy, where he lived until 1961 and where he finished his masterpieces 'The Room' (1952, influenced by Pierre Klossowski's novels) and 'The Street' (1954). In 1956, Balthus exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1960, he drafted the stage set for Jean-Louis Barrault's production of Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar. Throughout this period he struggled to make a living as an artist, appreciated only by a small band of artists and writers including Picasso, Giacometti and Camus, and supported by a consortium of patrons. In 1961 he was appointed director of the as director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome by his friend and minister Andre Malraux.
In Rome he made friends with the filmmaker Frederico Fellini and the painter Renato Guttuso. The quest for seclusion and inspiration led Balthus to Japan in 1962, where he met and later married Japanese artist Setsuko Ideta in 1967. Setsuko was the subject of some dozen of the artist's 300 works, as well as mother to a son who died in infancy, and their daughter, Harumi. In 1968, the Tate Gallery in London showed a Balthus retrospective. In 1977, Balthus left Rome and settled at the Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland, where he remained until his death. The painter could only afford to buy the Chalet with the help of Pierre Matisse who advanced him a large sum. In 1980, at the Venice Biennale, 26 works of Balthus were exhibited. In 1983/84, the Musée national d'art moderne Centre George Pompidou in Paris (France), the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Municipal Museum of Art in Kyoto (Japan) dedicated retrospectives to the artist. In 1996, a retrospective at Madrid's (Spain) Centro de Arte Reina Sofia followed. In 1998, the University of Wroclaw (Poland) bestowed an honorary doctorate on Balthus. Balthus was the only living artist who had his artwork in the Louvre's collection (it came from Picasso's private collection when it was donated to that museum). In 2000, the Catalogue raisonné with Balthus' complete works was published. He leaves a relatively small body of works which includes some 350 paintings and about 1600 drawings.
Prime Ministers and rock stars alike attended the funeral of Balthus. Bono, lead-singer of U2, sang for the hundreds of mourners at the funeral.

This article uses, among others, material from the Wikipedia article "Balthus" licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. :
Other sources:
Le monde des artistes (in French)
Balthus (in Italian)
Fondation Balthus (in French)
Internet obituary network
All Posters (reproductions of 8 paintings)
OCAIW (about 150 paintings)
Babele Arte (in Italian)
Glos Uczelni (in Polish)

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