Balthus, Alice (1933)
Excerpt from: Balthus lessons - five controversial works by the French artist; Art in America , Sept, 1997 by Sabine Rewald:
Alice disturbs by its clinically realistic representation of a young woman, not particularly attractive, with strong legs and one disproportionately large breast bared. She is combing her hair in a corner of the painter’s studio. If, as seems likely, the title is an allusion to Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, then the painting’s surface is the mirror before which Alice stands, and the viewer becomes a voyeur. The figure’s sexual accessibility is contradicted by the remote expression of her clouded eyes. Antonin Artaud, a friend of Balthus’s, described this ambiguity in his review of Balthus’s exhibition:
The nude I have in mind has about it something harsh, something tough, something unyielding, and … there is no gainsaying the fact … something cruel. It is an invitation to lovemaking, but one that does not dissimulate the dangers involved.(16)
Balthus matter-of-factly records the outsized breast and the graceless right knee. The model for Alice was the 23-year-old Betty Leyris, the English wife of the French writer and poet Pierre Leyris. Both she and her husband were close friends with Balthus at the time. In the artist’s earlier 1930 portrait of Betty Leyris, she appears haughty, prim and more diminutive. She remembered that Balthus painted Alice rapidly.(17) Things did not proceed as smoothly as Balthus had wished, however. In a burst of impatience or anger, Balthus took the chair on which Betty/Alice rested her foot and flung it against the canvas. The small repaired tear is still visible in the upper right corner.
Alice presents two contrasting views of female sexuality. The ambiguity perceived by Artaud is analogous to the Symbolist view of female sexuality as threatening, cruel and dangerous. Alice’s alluring posture and her strong sensuality can also be compared to Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World (1886). (The Courbet was owned by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whom Balthus knew; Lacan may well have shown it to him.)
Alice was the only one of the five large paintings included in the Pierre exhibition to remain in France at that time. In 1935 it was acquired by the French writer and poet Pierre Jean Jouve, a friend of Balthus’s. Jouve hung the picture in his bedroom, right across from his bed. When I first saw this painting in the winter of 1979 in Paris — it had changed hands by then — it hung behind a large yellow curtain in a tiny fourth-floor walkup apartment near the Boulevard St. Germain. Sometime in the late 1980s Alice entered a private collection in California, and in the early 1990s spent several years on the American art market. Alice’s raw and confrontational sexuality found no favor with American collectors or museums. Finally, in 1995 the painting was acquired by the Pompidou, where it has hung on permanent view next to Cathy Dressing.
Man Ray, Matisse, Bonnard, Duchamp, Breton, Cocteau, Joyce, Benjamin, Beauvoir - photographs by Gisèle Freund.
We discovered some Museum visitors that look an awful lot alike the artworks they are looking at. Coincidence? Which artwork at the Museum best suits your style?
“The Ballet Class,” c. 1880, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
“White and Black,” 1955, Ellsworth Kelly, Collection of the artist © Ellsworth Kelly
“A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon,” 1942, Marc Chagall © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
“Untitled XXI,” 1982, Willem de Kooning © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
“Red,” 1955-56, Sam Francis © Samuel L. Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
“Umpferstedt II,” 1914, Lyonel Feininger © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
'The Last of a Kind':
Soon after Spain’s most famous artist died, El Periódico, a newspaper in his native city of Barcelona, published a spread with a plaintive headline: “No One Like Tàpies.”
Antoni Tàpies, 88, was a local hero who rose to international prominence by bringing Great Spanish Painting into the postwar era. His metaphysical abstractions are infused with the legacy of his modernist forebears, Picasso and Miró—along with medieval Catalan mysticism, Eastern spirituality, anti-fascist sentiment, and an assortment of humble materials, like dirt and straw, imbued, as his champion Roland Penrose put it, with “a profound hidden meaning.”
Admired for his pro-democracy stance during the Franco era, when many other artists were in exile, Tàpies grew into an éminence grise, a public and much-published intellectual who built a foundation to share not only his own work but also his fascination with other cultures and disciplines. “From the time I was very young, I felt like a missionary,” the artist told me in his home in 1990, surrounded by art objects from Africa, Oceania, and other parts of the world. “It’s always the story that poets are something of the loco, hero, priest, teacher.”
…Asking artists and curators who they thought could fill his shoes as artist or as icon, El Periódico came up empty. “He was the last of a kind,” says Manuel Borja-Villel, founding director of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, who now runs the Reina Sofía in Madrid. “Tàpies was a bridge between the historical avant-garde and the younger generation. He wasn’t modern anymore, and not postmodern. That makes him very interesting. You cannot understand Spanish art and culture without his presence.”
Read more in my story in ARTnews.
Porta metàl·lica i violí (Metal Shutter and Violin), 1956. Collection Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona.