Balthus, The Street, 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Legacy of James Thrall Soby, 1979. © Balthus, 2019.
Considered one of the great masters of 20th-century art, Balthus is undoubtedly one of the most unique painters of his time. His diverse, ambiguous work, which has been equally admired and reviled, pursued a direction that ran completely counter to the rise of the avant-gardes. Balthus himself named some of his influences derived from the tradition of art history, ranging from Piero della Francesca to Caravaggio, Poussin, Géricault and Courbet. A more detailed study of his work also reveals references to more recent movements such as Neue Sachlichkeit and his employment of devices derived from 19th-century children’s book illustrations. In his divergence from modernity, which could now be described as “post-modern”, Balthus evolved a personal and unique type of avant-garde art and a figurative style that defies classification. His particular pictorial language, with its use of solid forms and strongly defined outlines, combines the procedures of the Old Masters with certain aspects of Surrealism. The resulting images involve numerous contradictions, juxtaposing tranquillity with extreme tension; reverie and mystery with reality; and eroticism with innocence.