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: Balthus’ The Living Room


Sam Sachs II



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Balthasar Klossowski de Rola was born February 29, 1908, to parents who were of the Polish aristocracy. In his early youth he moved with his family to Paris and began a brilliant career as a painter. Today he is the thirty-third director of the French Academy in Rome.Largely self-taught, Balthus, as he is known today, had frequent access to such artists as Bonnard, Derain, and Roussel, for both his parents were themselves artists. He learned much from his circle but drew as well from the works of Courbet and Seurat, both of whom were dead before he was born, and from the Old Masters he copied at the Louvre. At twelve he published his first work: illustrations for a story about his cat Mitsou with a foreword written by Rainer Maria Rilke who had early seen the child's talent. By 1933 he had allied himself with the Surrealist movement through his friendship with Giacometti and Antonin Artaud. While his style was certainly not itself surrealistic, there were definite affinities with this movement both in his personality and his approach. Two years later when he painted his now famous portraits of Derain and Miro, 1 the previous contacts in his life began to congeal into a personal style.Over the years Balthus has been a highly consistent worker and, largely, a recluse. He has been, in the words of Albert Camus, a "patient and clairvoyant swimmer, . . .[toiling] up strange rivers toward forgotten sources.”2 The strange rivers are those streams of conscious and unconscious thought which Munch before him had explored: those deep and occasionally fetid quagmires of human emotion.Balthus, who personally had a lonely childhood, was deeply aware of the torments of adolescence, and the adolescent for him became a symbol of emergent yet frequently pent-up emotion. The children of his paintings are introspective, preoccupied with themselves, mysterious, and frequently slightly evil. Having spent hours by himself as a youth, he knows the whims and aggressive independence that such isolation breeds. He has, even as an adult, never stopped feeling the emotions of childhood.The Living Room (fig. 1)3 is one of Balthus' most impressive and important paintings. Begun in 1941 it was left, unfinished, as the artist was dissatisfied with its progress. In 1942 he painted a second version (fig. 2) trying to resolve his problems, but upon its completion he returned to the first canvas and, making some subtle changes, completed it in 1943 with superb results.At first glance The Living Room is a simple, almost innocuous painting. But like all of Balthus' great works it is somehow compelling; it has a haunting sense of mystery about it that lures one back. It can not be so simple. It is not.Balthus is first and foremost a master of composition. Everything in this painting is exactly where and how the artist intended it to be; nothing is left to chance. The left arms of both girls have been moved from their original positions, but these changes have not been completely obscured. These pertimenti show us not only the artist's thought process but serve to give a sense of life and movement to a basically static scene. Originally, too, there was a third figure on the right edge of the canvas, but this was obviously superfluous to the artist's intention and has been replaced with the heavy and silent piano.The mood here is one of mysterious tension. What should be an idyllic interior is somehow unnerving and fraught with impending violence. The awkward grace of the girl reading so intensely in the foreground is contrasted with the limpness of her sister who indulges herself in sensuous reveries as suggested by her pose. While in physical proximity, the girls are worlds apart. They are as opposite from each other as are the Victorian furnishings from the classic architecture of the room itself. It is the introvert versus the extrovert; the scholar versus the hedonist.Dominating the center of the painting is the bowl of fruit, symbolic of ideal balance and order. It is suggestive of the harmony and beauty that we are made to feel are lacking in the waking relationship between the two girls. It exists, stoically isolated on the table, and balanced precariously, even ambiguously, near the edge.The variant of this work (fig. 2) not only makes ambiguous the sex of one of the figures, introducing a further complication and erotic element, but includes a cat which for Balthus frequently serves to suggest stealth, evil, and the destruction of innocence. It is apparent in our version, however, that this fillip is basically unnecessary to the success of the scene, and it is perhaps for this reason that the artist returned to his original composition and completed it with such staggering force.Endnotes
  1. Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  2. Art News, 61, No. 2 (April, 1962), pp. 36 ff.
  3. 66.66. The John R. Van Derlip Fund. Oil on canvas, 44 3/4 inches x 58 inches. Signed and dated in the lower left: 1941-43.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola)
    French, 20th century
    The Living Room, 1941-43
    Oil on canvas, 44 3/4 inches x 58 inches
    The John R. Van Derlip Fund, 66.66
  2. Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola)
    French, 20th century
    The Living Room
    Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney, New York
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Source: Samuel Sachs II, "Balthus' The Living Room," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 55 (1966): 53-55.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009