Balthus: A Retrospective, an exhibition representing a half century (1930-1980) of the contemporary French artist Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski of Rola), closed in May at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It consisted of some 50 paintings and 60 drawings. Included in the show were illustrations for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1933), in which Balthus identified himself with Heathcliff.

The first extensive survey of Balthus’s work to be held in the United States presented his recurring subject themes: the reveries and mysteries of adolescence, the female nudes, portraits, players of cards, still lifes, large urban scenes, and panoramic landscapes. Paintings had been lent from collections in Europe, Australia, Mexico, and the United States. Since many of his works remain privately owned, the exhibition provided a unique opportunity to view Balthus’s art.

The paintings are mostly realist-figurative, with roots reaching back to the frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Whether Balthus is a seminal painter can be argued. At a time when neo-Expressionist trends have arrived with a gale force in New York, Balthus received overwhelming attention. “Balthus is distinctly the man of the hour,” wrote John Russell of The New York Times. In 1977, Balthus’s one-man show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York was mobbed. His works are sold, on the average between $500,000 and $800,000. They seldom appear at auction, although one did recently in London and fetched close to $1 million. Whatever may be said about the private life of Balthus, something he guards as closely as Greta Garbo, his paintings have an enigmatic power which is hard to escape. The majority of his work is structured around young females—girls, in fact, on the threshold of puberty, or having just crossed it. No gardeners with ladies here, for Balthus has moved beyond the Lawrentian syndrome of sex. Balthus’s eroticized fantasies are so thoroughly worked out, so astutely studied and crafted with such daring compositions, that they seem utterly real. His interiors are not so Parisian as Jamesian—an easy casualness about the place, the adults out of town and the young together at last. Indeed Balthus’s paintings of young women are so suggestive that few past and contemporary painters approach his extraordinary skills. Actual physical touching is often very limited. Balthus never shows a drop of blood, as Munch did with his paintings of pubescent girls. The sexual and sensuous, even lustful, aspects are manifested with immense subtlety that is at the same time equally decadent.

Most of Balthus’s work leaves much more to the imagination than average works of art. The most powerful of his paintings, “The Guitar Lesson” of 1934 was safely excluded from the New York retrospective. There are two women in this painting. The older, the instructor, has bent her pupil backwards, revealing the student’s nude body from the waist down. The student’s hair is clutched by the teacher’s right hand. The instructor’s blouse is loose, her right breast is showing. An intimation of satisfaction can be discerned from the female fades. Whether the teacher is taking advantage of youth, or the two have consented to play with ach other, is unanswered. The lesson, for sure, has been interrupted and the guitar lies idle on the foreground. A milder 1949 “Study After The Guitar Lesson,” shown in New York, replaced the female instructor with a male, whose left hand held the student’s knee and with his right, he held her wrist—a far cry from the enigmatic 1934 painting.

Themes similar to “The Guitar Lesson” occur frequently in Balthus, though none is so shocking. Freudian or not, very young women seem to be the painter’s obsession. The distinguished poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who had patronized Balthus, wrote in 1921 that “Balthus will remain in his dream and he will transform all reality to suit his creative needs.” A year later, while merely 14, Balthus confided to a friend that he wished “to remain a child forever.” This Peter Pan Ideal rarely surfaced in sheer innocence. We have no definite proof as to why Balthus is obsessed with young pubescent females. “The Golden Days,” Painted in 1944-45 depicts another interior scene. A young woman with one breast exposed lounges on a chair. There is a half-dressed man, her lover perhaps, with his back to the viewer, tending to an active fireplace.

Balthus was born in Paris in 1908 and now lives with his second wife and their little daughter in a Swiss village. He is Polish by descent, but remains the quintessential European. Judging from his self-portraits and recent photographs, Balthus is a thin man, with an intellectual air about his angular face, with deep-set eyes and a melancholic expression. But his artwork reveals an entirely different person. De Gaulle’s cultural minister André Malraux, another Balthus friend, appointed him director of the French Academy in Rome. Balthus restored the Villa Medici and its gardens, located close to the Spanish Steps in Rome. There, for five years he also kept his young Japanese mistress, who served as a model in several key paintings. From his first marriage Balthus had two sons. Eventually Balthus married Setsuko Ideta in 1967. He served as director until 1977. At that time, he moved to Switzerland. The paintings Setsuko Ideta figured in, “The Turkish Room, “ “Japanese Figure with a Black Mirror,” and “Japanese Figure with a Red Table,” all of the 1960’s are first-rate works. Balthus recycled nothing from the Japanese prints of the floating world, the Ukiyo-e. Yet, almost a century after the post-Impressionists had exhausted Japonisme, Balthus dared to undertake the same theme. The female figure is extended parallel to the picture plane, the paintings constructed with rectangular spaces, hinting rather than aping Japanese sensuosness.

Portraiture is another strength of Balthus. His best portrait is of Joan Miro and his daughter Dolores painted in 1937-38. The late Spanish surrealist impeccably dressed is shown seated with his daughter standing near him—the picture of paternal love. In portraits like those of Derain, the Fauvist, Balthus returns swiftly to the erotic elements by showing a young female dressing in the background The issue is forced upon viewers: is the scene depicted before or after the conjugal act?

More than anything, Balthus is a man of forceful ideas, a person familiar with executing them in paintings that can hypnotize a viewer. Because he has mastered his painting technique and handles compositions with great invention, the salient eroticism of his work is the prime example of timeless artistic sublimation, so rare in our era of pointless explicitness.