“Restoring the Villa Medici to its former glory was an obsession for me. It had something to do with the spiritual life, a way of preserving life. My friend Fellini felt it very strongly: “I see you,” he said, “as the guardian of the heritage where history has deposited the culture of mankind.
Born in Paris to a family of Polish origin who had taken refuge in East Prussia, Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, was the son of the art critic Erich Klossowski and Elizabeth Dorothea Spiro, nicknamed Baladine. Balthus was also the brother of the writer and philosopher Pierre Klossowski.
Balthus was born in Paris but, because of his origins, his family fled to Switzerland during the First World War.
His paintings are relatively rare, numbering only around 300, many of which are undated. He has remained famous for his pictures of young girls, often painted in ambiguous poses, playing on the idea of the innocence lost in adolescence. He remained a figurative artist at a time when abstraction was king.
His mother Baladine met the poet Rilke in 1919: Balthus was then 11 years old and published his first book of drawings, Mitsou, under the impetus of his famous mentor. He signed the book Baltusz, the nickname given to him at the time, which he later changed to Baltus and then Balthus. During his adolescence, he benefited from his mother’s many friends who came to see her, including André Gide, Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard. As soon as war was declared, Balthus, although shunted between Berlin, Berne, Geneva and Beatenberg, grew up in a cultural environment conducive to the development of a rare personality. Returning to Paris in 1924, he refused to follow the traditional curriculum of the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts and enrolled as a free student at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1925, at the Louvre, Balthus relentlessly copied Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus for three months. Then, in the summer of 1926, like all well-born artists, he travelled to Italy. The painter took inspiration from Masaccio, Masolino and Piero della Francesca’s frescoes of the Story of the True Cross (San Francesco church in Arezzo). In 1929, he exhibited for the first time in Zurich, without much success. He moved to Paris in 1933. He came into contact with the Surrealist movement through Pierre Loeb, but he had little in common with André Breton’s movement. In 1934, he exhibited a series of paintings of young girls in ambiguous dress that would make him famous.
In 1937 he married Antoinette de Watteville, who modelled for him in several paintings, including La Toilette (1933, Centre Pompidou, Paris) and Jeune fille en costume d’amazone (1932, Stanislas Klossowski collection). He was mobilised in Alsace at the start of the Second World War but was soon demobilised for mysterious reasons. In 1953, he left Paris for the Château de Chassy in Burgundy, where he stayed for almost eight years.
In 1961, he was appointed Director of the French Academy in Rome, at the Villa Medici, by the Minister of Culture André Malraux. He undertook extensive restoration work on the buildings and gardens of the villa, which he left his mark on until 1977, willingly lending himself to long conversations with the young boarders. During his stay in Italy, Balthus made friends with the film-maker Federico Fellini and the painter Renato Guttuso. Sent on an official mission to Japan by Malraux in 1962, he became increasingly interested in Far Eastern art, and in 1967 married a young Japanese painter, Setsuko Ideta, the heroine of Chambre turque (1963-1966, Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris). In 1983, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris organised a retrospective for which Balthus painted his own self-portrait, but from behind, a very personal way of preserving the aura of mystery with which he never ceased to surround himself.
Balthus died at the age of ninety-two on 18 February 2001 in his chalet in Rossinière (canton of Vaud, Switzerland), where he had lived since 1977, leaving his last painting, “Jeune fille à la mandoline”, unfinished. This painting was unveiled to the public at the exhibition – actively supported by the industrialist and friend of Balthus, Giovanni Agnelli – that Venice devoted to the master, an enchanting and grandiose retrospective comprising more than 250 works.
Balthus’s estate, Castello di Montecalvello, can be visited through Anna Rita Properzi – Guida Turistica della Tuscia. Visits can be arranged on request for groups or on fixed dates (see the Passegiate section).
For further information: Il Castello di Balthus a Montecalvello | Lazio Nascosto