Woman looks at 'The Blanchard Children' (1937) by late French artist Balthus
Rome - Arab Today
Balthus is the subject of a major retrospective opening this weekend in Rome, two years after a similar exhibition in New York sparked controversy over the French painter's erotically-charged depictions of barely pubescent girls.
Nearly 15 years after his death, the collection of some 150 of his works represents a return to a city where Balthus spent a considerable chunk of his career, and to a country that inspired a passion for figurative painting that placed him outside the major modernist art movements of the 20th Century
Balthus, born Balthazar Klossowski de Rola to a France-based Polish father and Russian mother, was director of the French Academy in Rome from 1961-77 and was largely responsible for the restoration and reorganisation of its home, the Villa Medici.
Still one of the city's landmark buildings, the Villa is playing host to a parallel exhibition which showcases some of the artists' major works completed during his time in Rome, his impact on the building and its gardens and his working environment.
The main collection is being shown at the Scuderie del Quirinale, the former stables of the papal palace that is now the official residence of Italy's president.
It features examples of work from every stage of Balthus's career, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits as well as some of the controversial erotic pieces and numerous works featuring cats, another of the artist's fixations.
Cecile Debray, the curator of the exhibition, said Balthus could virtually be considered a Roman given the importance of the time he spent here and the impact earlier trips to Italy had on him.
"He was always fascinated both by the primitives of the Renaissance and by a certain form of classicism that was incarnated by Rome," Debray told AFPTV, describing the artist as a one-off.
"He didn't belong to any movement. He was part of the generation of surrealists but never a surrealist himself and he was without doubt the greatest figurative painter of the 20th Century.
"He was born in 1908, died in 2001. He lived through the entire 20th century and remained extremely faithful to an extremely realist form of painting, albeit a realism that absorbed a subtle and light form of fantasy. And I'd say it is that which makes the poetry and uniqueness of Balthus."
- 'Not a paedophile' -
This collection is lighter on the kind of images of girls on the cusp of womanhood that led one critic to brand Balthus "one of the creepiest figures in modern art" after the New York exhibition.
Debray acknowledges that painting "very young girls with a very strong erotic suggestion" was a defining theme of Balthus's work, but robustly dismisses any suggestion the work could be regarded as indicative of a predatory sexual interest in minors.
"Until now they never caused any debate but it is true that very recently we have seen some rather prudish reactions to his painting as there has been much debate around the subject of paedophilia," she said.
"I think it is very important to recall that these are paintings, i.e. representations, and that Balthus was absolutely not a paedophile.
"It (what he is doing) is much more a reflection on the nature of eroticism, the nature of beauty and a sort of desire to engage the public on the essential subjects of eroticism and sexuality.
"He wanted to shake up the art world through a very intelligent use of a realism that suggests erotic or grotesque atmospheres. It is this very individual painting that still engages the public today and can also still disturb."
The exhibitions are on until the end of January after which the collection at the Scuderie will move to the Kunstforum in Vienna.