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ART SEEN - Controversial art from Balthus at the Gagosian

Mid Morning Mix// ART SEEN // Events// Explore Switzerland// Art & Culture // May 18, 2017

Balthus at the Gagosian Gallery in Geneva: a glimpse into the work of an enigma

For this week's episode of ART SEEN, Uli Van Neyghem visits the Gagosian Gallery in Geneva to see the work of Balthus. 

Where:             Gagosian Gallery
                         19, Place de Longmalle
                         1204 Geneva

When:             Until July 29, 2017

Open:             Tuesday - Saturday from 10:00 - 18:00

Entry:              Free

Gagosian Gallery is a contemporary art gallery, owning sixteen gallery spaces worldwide. Apart from showcasing and selling the works of upcoming, as well as famous artists, to wealthy international collectors, the Gagosian maintains a commitment to historical, museum-like exhibitions. 
The entry to the present Balthus exhibition is completely free and visitors are welcome. The last Balthus retrospective in Switzerland dates back to 2008 (in the Fondation Gianadda), so this is a rare occasion to get a glimpse into the work of this enigmatic French-Polish painter.
Born in Paris in 1908 as Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, he painted under the sobriquet Balthus (based on his childhood nickname). Throughout his career, Balthus rejected the usual conventions of the art world. Already his first gallery exhibition in 1934 scandalized the Parisian audience with its voyeuristic and erotically charged depictions of pubescent girls. 
When all the artistic avantgarde around him experimented with cubism and abstraction, Balthus showed no interest in these modernist styles and stuck to his introverted figurative style. His paintings often have a narrative, dreamlike quality, more in the manner of the second generation of surrealist painters such as Salvatore Dali. 
Early on his work was admired, however, by fellow artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro or Alberto Giacometti and writers like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Albert Camus or Rainer Maria Rilke (who became his mother's lover after the parents' separation and helped the only 13 year old to publish 40 of his drawings in form of a book, for which Rilke wrote a preface).
The career-spanning exhibition at the Gagosian is showing an interesting variety of his work from paintings, drawings and studies, as well as a lamp designed by the artist. The drawings reveal lively experimentations in form, material and technique, including pointillist portraits, landscapes and caricatures.
Balthus was a very meticulous, slow painter, preparing extensive studies before the final version of his paintings. The exhibition includes various studies done in pencil or charcoal, as well as a beautiful study in oil for "Le Salon", which becomes only more interesting for the parts left unfinished. 
A multitude of Polaroid photographs taken by the artist himself add another very fascinating dimension to the exhibition. Toward the end of his life Balthus used the instant photographs as 'preparatory sketches' for his paintings, as physical impairments due to his age made drawing more and more difficult.
The centre piece of the exhibition is doubtlessly the monumental 'Odalisque allongée', a late work of the artist, showing a young naked girl, holding a mandolin, reclining on a rigid four poster bed. The gentle curves of the figure contrast the angular bed frame. A series of the polaroids done in preparation accompany the oeuvre. Both depict his last model, a girl named Anna (the daughter of a friend) who posed for him every Wednesday for eight years in Balthus' last residence the Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland. Apparently Anna, who attended the opening reception of the exhibition, has no negative memories of this period.    
Without any doubt, Balthus remains one of the most controversial figures in the art world. One of his exhibitions in Germany was closed down over accusations of pedophelia. At the same time he was one of the few living artists to be represented in the Louvre. His funeral was attended by Prime Ministers, the French president and rockstars like Bono and supermodel Elle Mcpherson.
Balthus cultivated the mystery surrounding his person and resisted attempts made to build a biographical profile. In a telegram to the Tate Gallery, preparing his 1968 retrospective in London he demanded: "NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B."
So take a look at the pictures at the Gagosian and get a glimpse into the work of the enigma BALTHUS.


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