Balthus: Under the Surface | Luxembourg + Co

The notes for this show, apparently the first Balthus exhibition in the UK since 1968, contain the following Oscar Wilde quote: “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.”

This plea not to look too closely is appropriate for this artist, considering the fact he was a snob, a vile anti-semite despite his Jewish heritage, and is most famous these days for his unabashedly erotic pictures of little girls. (I’m guessing that’s the main reason there hasn’t been a show of his here for half a century.)

I’ve written about many monstrous individuals who also produced great art on here before: Sironi, Nolde and Picasso, to name some of the worst. Balthus was certainly a monster - what about the art?

Balthus, ‘Le poisson rouge’ (1948)

He was self-taught, and came to specialise in frozen and foreboding portraits, rendered in thick oil paint. The expressions of his deliberately primitively-rendered sitters are always blank - intentionally blank. If awake, they stare out at us in a state of suspended animation, lifeless but also, somehow, charged. The atmosphere they cast is utterly distinctive, and it’s hard to look away.

I found it easier to deal with this small, tightly-curated exhibition than the massive Balthus retrospective that I went to a few years back at Fondation Beyeler, with room after room of this stuff. That said, the London show still packs a predatory punch, with Luxembourg + Co having heightened the atmosphere by painting the gallery walls a lurid orange.

The works are an impressive collection, though one stands out. Le poisson rouge from 1948, pictured above, is a mini masterpiece of psychological tension, a strange doll’s head on a table mirroring the fishbowl, a hollow-eyed cat staring out at us, ready to yank the tablecloth out and destroy everything. Balthus was obsessed with cats, and often used them as stand-ins for himself in his work.

And what about the little girls? They’re in three group portrait paintings from the 1940s, and in a couple of (much later) drawings. All feature the same pose - reclining, one leg hitched up, a posture of sexual submission that’s also seen in Thérèse Dreaming, Balthus’ most infamous work of all.

Back to Luxembourg & Co’s show notes, which refer to these scenarios as “dreamlike”. I agree and disagree. Looking at Balthus, you do feel caught somewhere between waking and sleeping. But it’s not an untroubled sleep - it’s like waking up after a daydream after a heavy meal in an overheated room. Stimulating, but somehow nauseating too.

Balthus: Under the Surface is at Luxembourg + Co (London). 03 March - 04 June 2023