Born in Paris into a Polish family soon forced to take refuge in Switzerland during the First World War, Balthus spent his childhood in Geneva with his brother Pierre Klossowski. He had only just turned twelve when he published his first book of drawings, Mitsou, a tale of a cat; the cat being an animal that looms large (and frequently) in the Balthus oeuvre. The preface for this precocious publishing venture bore the signature of poet Rainer Maria Rilke. After spending time in Paris, where he made numerous copies at the Louvre, he went to Italy to study the Renaissance frescoes of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, which would have a lasting influence on the physique of his figures and the palette he used for his sizable compositions. In the 1930s he attracted critical attention with his enigmatic scenes of young girls in softly lit interiors, while at the same time working with directors on the production of stage sets; and in 1935 his Indian ink illustrations for a French edition of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights appeared in issue no. 5 of the magazine Minotaure. Gallerist Pierre Loeb introduced him into the Surrealist group, but ultimately he had little contact with André Breton. In the late 1930s he had several exhibitions at Pierre Matisse’s New York gallery. During the War he lived for a few months in Savoie, then in Fribourg and Cologny, near Geneva, where he took part in discussions between artists, intellectuals and writers associated with publisher Albert Skira and the monthly Labyrinthe, for which he sometimes contributed ideas for illustrations and layout. It was in Switzerland that he finished Les Beaux Jours (1944–1946).
 

Our drawing is an overall study for one of Balthus’s major works of the early 1950s. La Chambre (ill. 1) was doubtless executed entirely in Paris between 1952 and 1954, not long before his move to the Château de Chassy in Burgundy. This work, which the artist had for a time thought of calling “Bonaparte Discovering the Fertile Plains of Italy”, returns to a compositional arrangement already observable in earlier works – Les Beaux Jours (1944-1946); La Semaine des quatre jeudis (1948) – in which a languid female body is subjected to sharp lighting coming from a laterally placed window. The model may have been Frédérique Tison, Balthus’s niece by marriage and his muse and future companion during his years in Burgundy. As in Nu sur une chaise longue (1950), the sleeping girl is offered to the viewer’s eye. The theme of La Chambre resides in the dialectic between the shown and the hidden, the offered and the withheld. The figure placed to the right of the composition, described by Jean Clair as a “hermaphroditic dwarf”, is holding the curtains in such a way that we cannot tell if he has just cast light on the exposed body or is about to plunge it into darkness. A recurring figure in Balthus’s painting, and often an autobiographical clue, the cat looks the viewer straight in the eye, calling on him as a witness. Jean Clair sees in this scene “a world in suspension, but also a world that is a passage from childhood to adolescence.”1 The interior Balthus presents
is simple, austere and free of all decoration, a minimalist setting allowing for maximum concentration on the question of visibility. Shown here for the first time, our drawing is the most accomplished and comprehensive of the studies relating to La Chambre, most of the others being detailed sketches of postures or individual figures. (G.P.)

 

 

1. Jean Clair, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, trans. Virginie Monnier (New York: Abrams, 2000), p. 35.

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