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.
Mexican self-portrait artist Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, her muralist compatriot — a couple referred to as “the elephant and the dove” by the former’s disgruntled parents — had a relationship blighted by volatile tempers, countless infidelities, separate living quarters, and even divorce and remarriage. But the four-decade-long love affair of Balthus and Setsuko Klossowska, a Japanese artist who met the Polish-French erotic anti-modernist when she was a 20-year-old university student, seems to be one of the more edifying unions the art world has ever nurtured.
Born of Polish parents (he also claimed to be a quarter Scottish), 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 were 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).
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 — Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in the galleries of Florence and tempera wall paintings in the Protestant churches of Switzerland were among his favourites — before moving into a Paris studio at the age of 25.