Icons / August 2016

The Art of Happiness: Balthus & Setsuko Klossowska

One of the most harmonious love affairs in art history — that between Balthus and Setsuko Klossowska — unfurled despite a cultural gulf, a three-decade age gap, and one of…
Painter Balthus and his wife Setsuko in their wooden hut of Rossiniere, Switzerland in February, 1998. Photo by Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

To be two artists about to embark on a love affair is to be warned, by the looming shadow of history, that your union might be fraught with adversity. The clashes of movement found in Jackson Pollock’s visual cacophonies might easily be interpreted as an angst-on-canvas depiction of his marriage to fellow abstract expressionist Lee Krasner. The twisted, perhaps even cruel, portraits Pablo Picasso did of his muse, Dora Maar, reflect a union that, despite the French-Croatian photographer persuading him to join the French Communist Party in 1944, was markedly volatile. Even so the four-decade-long love affair of Balthus and Setsuko Klossowska, seems to be one of the more edifying unions the art world has ever nurtured.

Born of Polish parents, Balthus grew up in the 14th arrondissement of Paris as Balthasar Klossowski, the son of an art historian father and a painter mother (he later added ‘de Rola’ to his name as part of a claim to be Polish nobility). His older brother was a philosopher and writer, and the family was part of Paris’s cultural elite (his parents were friends with Matisse and Bonnard, and their walls were lined with canvases by Cézanne and Delacroix as well as their own works).

"The Guitar Lesson was just one of a number of Balthus’s works that showed a preoccupation with young females."

Having had his first collection of 40 drawings, titled Mitsou, published at 11 years old, he spent much of his youth studying any art that resonated with him, before moving into a Paris studio at the age of 25. Indifferent to the contemporary styles of the era, notably Cubism, Balthus embarked on the works that would make up the 1934 Paris exhibition that launched his career, including the painting that remains his most famous — and, indeed, infamous — to date: The Guitar Lesson. Mounted for 15 days — behind curtains and hidden away in the gallery’s back room — the work depicts a child lying across her music teacher’s lap in place of the instrument, which is placed on the floor. The two figures’ pose echoes ‘Pietà’ (Christian art depicting Christ’s corpse being cradled by the Virgin Mary), a connotation subverted by the positioning of the teacher’s hands, which suggest that a vaguely violent sexual initiation rite is about to unfold. More than any other major painting that stands charged with putting art’s neck into a leather leash and leading it into lurid, gratuitous or sadomasochistic realms of erotica, The Guitar Lesson seems to have offended a vast number of people who have set eyes on it.

What is more, The Guitar Lesson was just one of a number of Balthus’s works that showed a preoccupation with young females. Even the at-a-glance innocuous street scene depicted in La Rue features, on the left extreme of the canvas, a teenaged girl being groped. Meanwhile, Alice Dans Le Miroir is a prurient take on Lewis Carroll’s novel, and Girl and Cat (1937) was, for some time, the cover of the Penguin paperback version of a literary work that, like Balthus’s oeuvre, prompted uncomfortable reactions with its approach to prepubescent femininity — Nabokov’s Lolita.With the public becoming suspicious of Balthus’s preoccupation with ‘la jeune fille’, it was inevitable that many observers would nod their disapproving consensus in zealous unison when a relationship between him and a woman 35 years his junior blossomed after the pair met in Tokyo in 1962.

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