Balthus: While modernism flourished around him, this artist had the courage to create his own unique and significant style
Every once in a while an artist known and respected primarily by art professionals bursts into public favor. This newfound popularity may be deserved or not, may prove temporary or permanent. Either way, as long as it lasts, the artist in question will be the toast of the art world and of all those who come into contact with it.
That is the way things were during the 1982-83 art season, when, thanks to several highly successful shows, Louise Bourgeois added public fame to what had formerly been largely art-world acclaim. And much the same has been true of Giacometti, Bacon, Morandi, and Gorky. Famous as these artists may have been to the art world, that fame was nothing compared with what was unleashed once the general public was made fully aware of their importance through major and well-publicized exhibitions of their work.
The latest artist to be so treated is Balthazar Klossowski, known simply as Balthus. Although highly regarded by curators, critics, and collectors in Europe and America - and considered by some to be one of the major figurative painters of the century - his reputation with the public at large has been spotty at best.
This has already begun to change, however, thanks to the advance publicity and word-of-mouth campaign set off by the Metropolitan Museum's current Balthus exhibition here, and the reports trickling out of Paris, where this show first opened last November at the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou.
All this highly favorable advance billing is richly deserved. ''Balthus: A Retrospective'' is a superb and major exhibition. Its 51 paintings and numerous drawings constitute the first full survey of Balthus's work in the United States , easily substantiating the claims of those who consider him one of this century's finest representational painters.
Balthus was born in Paris in 1908 of parents who were Polish and German in origin, and who belonged to avant-garde literary and artistic circles in Paris and Switzerland. Although essentially self-taught, the young Balthus had the advantage of knowing and being helped by a number of distinguished figures including Rilke, Bonnard, Gide, Derain, and Artaud. During an intensive year of study in Italy in 1926, he made a special point of analyzing and copying the works of Piero della Francesca and Masaccio. Paintings by these artists, together with others by Poussin and Courbet, helped shape his moodily representational and quietly monumental style.
The thematic substance of his art, however, came strictly from within himself. He could not, in this case, have drawn significantly from others, since no one before him had portrayed the mysteries and reveries of adolescents to such an extent. And no one had so carefully fused subtle psychological insights, literary and art-historical allusions, precise renderings of physical objects, and a profound instinct for order into works so ''real'' and yet so hauntingly suggestive of hidden dreams and desires.
This suggestiveness, interestingly, stems as much from the formal aspects of his work as from his subjects. Strange and peculiar things do not, as a rule, take place in his paintings. But then, they don't have to, since Balthus has the extraordinary knack of so structuring a picture that the most simple objects and the most everyday activities seem significant and even subtly disturbing.
His is a world within which everything is frozen and timeless: a world in which adolescent girls lounge in chairs dreaming or stand examining themselves before mirrors; in which people stroll through streets or arrange themselves in rooms with all the architectural precision of the characters in Seurat paintings; and in which trees, fields, buildings, and clouds compose themselves into landscapes almost as classical in structure as those by Cezanne.
And yet it would be a serious mistake to read his paintings in strictly formal terms. They are too psychologically attuned and too overlaid with literary and art-historical allusions to be primarily studies in structure. Many of the figures seem to (or do) allude to established images and themes. The woman holding the fruit in ''The Golden Fruit,'' for instance, evokes memories of both fairy-tale witches and Renaissance angels bearing messages.
On the other hand, he has painted pictures that come close to being primarily studies in form and design. ''The Three Sisters,'' for instance, is almost entirely a study in formal arrangement, and such works as ''Landscape With a Cow'' and ''Landscape With a Tree'' are almost as purely formal as any Cubist painting.
Even his portraits are very carefully structured, and are as precisely and rigidly composed as any early-Renaissance portrait. This doesn't affect their impact, however, as the superb portraits of Miro, Derain, and the Vicomtesse de Noailles testify.
Throughout his career, Balthus has set his own goals and followed his own ideals. He has neither belonged to nor established a school or movement. Whatever he produced resulted from personal initiative and not from collective theorizing or a collective formal vision. At times of revolutionary fervor in the art world (during the days of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, for instance), he and his art have been perceived by many as reactionary and irrelevant. But he has also been perceived - as he is today - as an artist of very real significance.
He thus falls into the special category of artists who go their own way regardless of fashion or dogma. As such he is in good company: Eakins, Munch, Bacon, Hopper, Dubuffet, to name only a few. His work may have flaws and inconsistencies, and may at times seem overly idiosyncratic, but that really doesn't matter. It isn't easy, after all, to create a viable artistic philosophy and style all by oneself, and then to have the talent and determination to create significant art.
That he has at times done so is to his credit. His major works will hang in our museums for a long time to come, not perhaps as truly representative examples of the art of our century, but certainly as proof that a few of our artists were able to resist the logic and momentum of modernism - and still produce significant art.
At the Metropolitan Museum through May 13.