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Balthus: An S.O.S. for Painting

Post #1526 • February 29, 2012, 8:43 AM • 9 Comments

[Image: Balthus, Nude Before a Mirror, 1955, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 []

Balthus, Nude Before a Mirror, 1955, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 [source]

Today, February 29, Leap Day, is the birthday of Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus. Here is Balthus's "S.O.S. for Painting" from Balthus in His Own Words.

I'm sending out an S.O.S. to save painting because the love of painting is dead. I even believe that painting doesn't exist anymore. I just can't understand what painters today are doing. It's called "contemporary art"... For me, it's merely something executed without mastery. In painting, there are certainly no rules but there is nevertheless technical mastery to be acquired. In the past, everyone possessed this mastery, right down to the least-gifted painter. Painting was a craft then. Today, to paint means to do absolutely anything at all. I remember when Mirò showed his latest paintings to Picasso, he said to him indignantly, "Mirò... at your age?"

Today people are shamed to see popular traditions disappearing little by little. Great painting used to feed on popular art. There was no difference between the two. And when someone wanted to become a painter, he had to do an apprenticeship. I've known all the great masters of this century and they all bemoaned the same thing: The painter's craft has disappeared.

In the end, perhaps modernity consists in not knowing how to make phrases with paint.

The only modernity I admit to is in the sense that Baudelaire understood it.

As Gero von Boehm puts it in Kishin Shinoyama's little catalogue of photographs of Balthus's chalet,

[Balthus] is one of the few remaining artists who meet the requirement Baudelaire set for modernity: that it be half ephemeral-transient, and half eternal-abiding.

Later he cites Baudelaire again: "Of all the angels, Lucifer is the most wonderful."



Lou Gagnon

February 29, 2012, 10:06 AM

There is more knowledge available today than ever in the history of painting, so why is so little of it taught in academic settings? Or, if it is taught, why is it dumbed down to simplistic rules?

At some point when I teach this information, through private instruction, I get two questions:

  1. Why have I never been taught this? (Many who ask this have MFAs.)
  2. It seems like a lot of work. Do I really have to use it?

My answer to Question #2 is “No, just be prepared to be misunderstood.”

I wish I had a better answer for Question #1.

“In painting, there are certainly no rules...” Agreed, but there are rules to human perception, rules that for some reason are ignored in pursuit of “Creativity” and “Originality.”


Walter Darby Bannard

February 29, 2012, 10:40 PM

The answer to the plaints of Balthus and Mr. Gagnon must be framed in terms of psychology, sociology, commerce, and changing times, not art. Art explains nothing.

Yeats said, "be secret and exult..." No one is stopping us from making art as good as we can make it.



March 1, 2012, 1:14 PM

Just this past Saturday I taught color theory to a friend of mine in her studio in Chelsea. She has been to SVA and no one ever showed it to her. It's bewildering.


Lou Gagnon

March 1, 2012, 8:04 PM

Mr. Bannard, thank you for the allusion to Yeats. I'm curious, do you believe his command of vocabulary, rhythm and rhyme contribute to the resonance of the poem?

And, I have no "plaints." If this was offered where it should be I would not have clients. All of them come to me with the feeling that something is missing. I feel for the fact that they have paid for a formal education and received organized recess instead.

Also, Lou will do, if it works for you.


Walter Darby Bannard

March 2, 2012, 9:32 AM

Hi, Lou. I'm not sure what you mean by "resonance", but yes, of course. That "command" is what makes poetry.

I like the phrase "organized recess". Sometimes not even organized.

Franklin, I have had similar experiences galore. The reigning culture says that craft inhibits inspiration. When the student is serious and has been badly taught it is as if you are in possession of some wonderous arcane secret that you alone can convey.


Lou Gagnon

March 2, 2012, 8:35 PM

By resonance I mean richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion.


Alan Pocaro

March 4, 2012, 3:26 PM

Franklin, I'm curious, what specifically did you show your friend about color theory? I'm rendered speechless to hear that someone could go to SVA and not know that information. However, I have frequently taught things to students who later claim to "have never heard of that before".



March 5, 2012, 9:29 AM

Alan, it was the absolute basics: hue, value, and intensity. I can explain a semester's worth of color theory in fifteen minutes. Why it isn't taught in a straightforward way is baffling.


Walter Darby Bannard

March 5, 2012, 10:46 AM

You can explain it in a few minutes but can't get it in their heads in a semester, at least not with my students. We go through the basics and the application of the basics with homework and daily exercises in two of our 100-level courses, and few of them really absorb the application of the "3 part harmony" completely, that is, so they can actually use it for effect and identify what is "in" a color. It is hard enough to get them to understand how value difference makes areas more discreet, and the opposite.



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