Dirty brushes

Art - Alexander Walker on the salacious but exquisitely executed work of Balthus

Considering that Balthus died in February this year aged 92, the new exhibition of more than 200 of his works at the Palazzo Grassi, in Venice, sets something of a speed record for posthumous evaluation. Even the press notes have not caught up with his demise, referring to him as "the greatest living artist". However, there are still more disturbing grounds for raised eyebrows. Because if painting is currently "out", paedophilia is most assuredly "in" - and much less concealed here than it was in the 1930s, when the most notorious work in the show, The Guitar Lesson, was kept in a separate room at a Paris gallery, curtained off and viewable by invitation only.

I doubt if, even today, any public gallery in Britain would consider it prudent, or safe, to stage the exhibition that Jean Clair has curated. It is still startling, after 60-odd years, to experience the formidable charge of Balthus's obsessional attraction to very young girls, posing in revealing attitudes, their composition probably deriving from the adolescent studies of the pieta made by this self-taught artist in the churches of Arezzo and Florence, but rendered flagrantly contemporary, lubricious and onanistic.

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, who took the name "Balthus" by profession and the title "count" by pretension, always protested with disingenuous arrogance, and the cunning of a born dissembler, that "Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known". One look at these works, however, tells everything: his narcissism, his compulsion to dominate and his precocious ability to shock, which he would later "adjust" to a more saleable, yet even more unsettling, form of sexual ambiguity.

The young Balthus, Polish-born, child of a broken marriage, impoverished in fortune but overrich in the numbers of literary, theatrical and artistic luminaries clustered around his artist mother, herself the mistress of the poet Rilke, did not lack role models: Byron, Antonin Artaud and Heathcliff form a trinity of cruelty whose posturing he emulated, literally, in the 14 India ink drawings that feature early in the show. They are illustrations for Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, updated to the 1930s in dress, and executed when his courtship of a condescending heiress, Antoinette de Watteville, was faltering. In them, Balthus adds his own hard, aquiline features to Heathcliff's muscular body, allowing himself the vicarious compensation of dominating his own desired Cathy. "I want to put in them many things," he wrote, "tenderness, childish longing, dreams, love, death, crime, violence, cries of hatred, howls and tears."

The lifelong agenda is all there, set early and enduringly, though modulated by the beautifully smooth finish, Old Masterish in its seductive glow, of his later paintings of children and young girls. In The Guitar Lesson, the subjugator is explicitly feminine. But as Balthus's most recent (and admirably detached) biographer, Nicholas Fox Weber, observes, the stern woman with one milk-white breast bared, its nipple erect, who clamps a half-naked young girl to her lap, the child's mons veneris bulging like a fat purse while her "tutor's" fingers dig like talons into her inner thigh, as if continuing to pluck the stings of a guitar, retains the features of the male painter himself. First exhibited in Paris in 1934, this salacious but exquisitely and vividly executed work (along with four other large sensual paintings, all reunited for the Palazzo Grassi show) possesses a dramatic cruelty, a humiliation, a sadism of a pitch unrepeated elsewhere in the exhibition, although its components are present everywhere in slyer, hence creepier, compositions - the public peep-show facilitated by the short skirt, crooked leg, abstracted gaze and seductive innocence of the models.

A name mentioned only once - as far as I can ascertain from a catalogue weighing three kilos, and misspelled in it - is that of John Tenniel, the illustrator of Lewis Carroll's two Alice books. An Anglo-Saxon visitor to this exhibition will feel that he or she is looking at an endlessly eroticised Alice. As disturbing, in a more Byzantine way, is another famous work, The Street. Painted in 1933, its nine figures, men, women and children, resolve themselves after the first glance into eerie automata and homunculi. Critics have traced its iconography to a variety of sources: to Carroll's creations, perhaps. But if so, the Alice figure in the corner is being molested by Tweedledum (or Tweedledee) and - curiouser and curiouser - was actually being groped in an earlier version of The Street, whose American owner prevailed on Balthus to make modest adjustments for its public exhibition at MoMA in New York and move the assailant's hand slightly further north of Alice's crotch.

To linger on these two paintings no doubt does scant justice to the range of works on view - landscapes in the Chinese mode, portraits (of self and friends), stage designs and many (too many) drawings done possibly to raise cash for the 40-room Swiss hotel that became one of Balthus's imperial residences. But the eroticised bodies of girls on the brink of pubescence, pictured in the awkward postures that children have a knack of falling into naturally, yet enabling a prurient adult to view or visualise their unprotected sexuality, are the inescapable image that lingers after a visit to the Palazzo Grassi.

"Balthus" is at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice (00 39 041 523 1680), from 10am-7pm daily (except 24, 25 and 31 December and New Year's Day), until 6 January 2002

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