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Polish-French painter Balthus (born Balthasar Klossowski) entered this world on this day in 1908. By the time he died in 2001, he had become a  rock star in the art world. He moved in the upper-level elite social circles of Paris and counted artistic giants like Picasso and Giacometti among his close friends. He claimed ancestral linkages to Polish and Russian nobility and cultivated confusion about his family ties, perhaps to enhance the mystery that he so liked to cloak himself in.

The Street (Balthus, 1933)

He was one of those celebrities who had the all-important one-word name, like Bono (who sang at his funeral) and Elvis and Madonna. He carefully controlled information about his personal life, famously responding to a gallery’s request for biographical information with a brief telegram that said, in essence, nothing is known about him, now look at the pictures.

A realist painter with tendencies toward surrealism, Balthus included among his subjects numerous paintings of young (early teen) girls in what most viewers take to be highly erotic situations. That’s how I see them and given the clear eroticism of his work involving adult subjects, I think the conclusion is pretty obvious. For his part, Balthus denied that his paintings of young girls were erotic.

I  like Balthus’ work, although I confess that his erotic paintings make me uncomfortable. I won’t reproduce any of them here, but they’re  easy enough to find online. Just go to Google Images and search “balthus guitar lesson” is you really want to see. Don’t blame me if it bothers you.

The Passage du Commerce Saint-André (Balthus, 1952-54)

I haven’t mentioned this to very many people, but when I was in my teens, girls terrified me. I was all about building walls then, and girls seemed to want to peek inside. Add a heavy dose of Catholic guilt on top of that and it was a recipe for any number of mental illnesses. All these years later, I’m still not sure I’ve recovered. Women still scare me. Not all of them, but a few at least.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but the reason that Balthus’ work creeps me out is not the overt sexuality of his young subjects, it’s the fact that they take me back to that age and make me relive the exquisite terror of my interactions with the opposite sex. Those days when fresh beauty beckoned me but each step toward it was like bare feet on broken glass.

This is what Balthus reveals in me. Thanks a lot, you bastard.

Someone else will have to decide if his work is inappropriately erotic. I’ll gaze into the mirror he held in front of my face and leave it at that.

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