Des jeunes filles à la lumière des miroirs symbolique: Balthus & Mirrors (& #NSFW)

Painters like Baltyus are proven to be very fruitful for this blog; they are not merely famous, but controversially famous, they did paint many work with ‘mirrors’, and some of these works are not just beautiful, but perversely so, and so the presumed ‘success among the readers’ looks like a no-brainer to get.

The only danger, as with many artists of this sort, is not to fell into a trap of showing merely a compilation of the so-and-so’s main blockbusters, and limiting yourself with the set of most common clichés when commenting on them.

There will be some of Balthus’s blockbusters here, too, I will have to show them even if to provide the contest for his ‘mirrors’ (and I am afraid there will be some clichés as well). But let’s hope I will produce a line or two of not so obvious conclusions.

Many of the Balthus’s works are very #nsfw (=Not Safe for Work). Venture further at your own discretion.

My mirror stories usually begin with short biographic descriptions, but in case of Balthus this is seemingly unnecessary – not only there exists a well written wikipedia article (and in his case also a special website dedicated to his life and works – Foundation Balthus), but more importunely because Balthus himself banned any such descriptions. When in 1960 the Tate Gallery were preparing the first large exhibition of his works and requested a biography from Balthus, he replied with now famous text:


He was also strongly objected any ‘interpretation’ or ‘reading’ of his works, insisting that they must be just ‘seen’.  All these statements make the work of writing about Balthus more complicated that it may seem first.

I will try anyway.

As his suggested himself, let’s have a look at his works; Google Image Search quickly produces an overview of that sort:

Interesting enough, the compilation does not present too many works with mirror (only one, to be precise, I framed pink; the blue one is already a contemporary remake of this famous work).  As I will try to show, Balthus had many more works with mirrors.

Also, an attentive exploration of this set reveals an unusually high proportion of young girls, not always fully dressed, and often in somewhat risqué poses. Which for some people gives a ground to pronounce Balthus “a sagacious poet of emerging feminine sexuality”…

… while for many others, the reason to comminate him as a pervert pedophile with sadistic propensity; “made his name with scandalous pictures that dote lubriciously on young girls”, as one critic phrased it. Below is just a small set of words extracted from a few reviews of his works:  His own colleagues often also shared somewhat similar controversial perception, expressed in a visual form (see, for example, the collage by Joel-Peter Witkin, called Life is an Invention). Although he himself speaks about Balthus with great admiration, this work of him conveys dark and disturbed a feeling.

And – the most interesting question for me – what is the role of mirrors in this tangled quest in search of the true identity of the master?

I argue that mirrors play a very important (if not the most important) role in this oeuvre, but perhaps very different that suggested by the myriads of his pop-art-critiques (“Humbert Humbert school”, as they are called by Nicholas Fox Weber, an author of one of the most authoritative biography of Balthus). To present it, thought, I’d need to go step by step.

So, the biography; shortly.

He was born in 1908, in Paris, in a very artistic family; his father, Erich Klossowski, was a painter but also an art critic, and his mother, officially Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, was a painter, too, better known under artistic pseudonym Baladine. Balthasar, as his real name goes, was the second child, and his older brother will become a painter and a philosopher (see Pierre Klossowski).

From the early years Balthasar was in the very center of the famous Parisan bohemian life; André Gide, Maurice Denis, André Derain, Pierre Bonnard (whose mirrors I should write about too) were among the family friends, together with many other artists, poets, writers and intellectuals.

During the war they have to leave Paris (they had German passports) and the family moved to Berlin. There Baladine met Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she “an intense but episodic romance”, as they peculiarly put it, till the death of the Austrian poet in 1926. Eventually she divorced Erich Klossowski, and moved to with Rilke to Switzerland, taking Balthasar with her. This is the picture of that time:

Balthasar here is just fourteen years old boy, but he is already a “prominent artist”; in 1921, when he was only twelve, Rilke helped to launch his first “book”, history of the kitty called kitten Mitsou who ran away from home. This was not really a real book, but a story in pictures drawn by young Balthus, but Rilke was so touched with it that wrote a foreword and helped to arrange a small edition printed.

Apparently, these drawings had been completely forgotten and resurfaced only much later, in the possessions of one of the Rilke’s heirs (here is a short story about their restoration).

In 1924 they moved back to Paris, where “the three lived a materially marginal existence“, as eloquently expressed in Wikipedia. Looks like they always were in need of money, and that perhaps explains the fact that Balthus didn’t get any formal artistic education and is a classic example of a self-taught painter.

Wikipaintings shows one of his very early paintings, so called First Communion (1926):

The website says that the work is in the Tate Gallery, but I can’t track it back on the gallery’s site, and thus can’t say much on it.  It’s very tempting to see here many signs of the later work by Balthus (the juvenility, the juxtaposition/interlacing of the sacred and the sinful), but I wouldn’t do it, since I’d still love to learn more about this period, and the context of the work.

During the 1920s he travelled extensively across Europe, including to Italy,  where he even lived for a while in 1926 in Florence (I don’t know who funded these travels). It’s safe to say that the works of the masters of Italian Renaissance had an imprinting effect on young Balthus; he copied many of the frescos in Italy, and especially the works by Piero della Francesca. If one wants to search the origin of his works, their ‘roots’, this won’t be expressionism, fauvism or any other contemporary -isms, but the technique and the spirit of this painter and humanist who lived five centuries before Balthus was born. I will therefore make a short detour and show a few works of della Francesca.

This is his so called Madonna of Mercy (c.1445):

and she is a central part of a large and complex multi-figure polyptych, known as the Polyptych of the Misericordia:

Here is another Madonna, Madonna of Senigallia (c.1470)

The Queen of Sheba Worshipping the Wood of the Cross (1464)

I think that the paintings of Balthus absorbed not only the general atmosphere of the works by della Francesca, their color palette and textures, but even many of the individual characters and details from these frescos. I am still waiting for a detailed analysis of the faces by della Francesca and those by Balthus; I bet that contemporary face recognition tools could find plenty of similarities.

Piero della Francesca – The Flagellation of Christ (c.1450)

Piero della Francesca – Burial of the Holy Wood (1464)

Balthus copied not only the faces, this wooden plank, for instance, will enter one of his early paintings, Le Rue.

Soon after this trip Balthus went to Switzerland again, this time in the region near Berne, where he met Antoinette de Watteville, a woman from an old aristocratic family. [It may be interesting to add there that Balthus had a firm belief in his own aristocratic origin: his father was coming from the noble Polish family de Rola, and so the painter always insisted on calling him Count de Rola. Is it was lately discovered that the family, although of very old origin indeed, was not actually an aristocratic one.)

In any case, Antoinette will become his wife, although much later. When they met, she was already engaged and it took some years for them to arrange their own marriage. Their older son has recently published another biography of the painter, that includes correspondence between Balthus and Antoinette, but I didn’t read it yet.

I don’t know how exactly, but in 1927 Balthus received a commission, to paint a few frescos in a small Protestant church in a village called Beatenberg, near Berne. They both still exist, the village and the church, the latter even has a website where I took found a few images. Here is the exterior of the church:

and here is the interior:

There are no works by Balthus there anymore, the church council decided to replace them in 1934, seven years after the completion. There are only a few old photographs left showing the work by the painter:

The drawing below seems to be a contemporary reconstruction of the works:

Perhaps because of all these traumatic developments Balthus never painted any religious works anymore (at least explicitly religions).

When he came back to Paris in the end of 1920s, he continued to paint, mostly the scenes of urban life, but only a handful of these paintings survived, it’s one of the least known period of his oeuvre.

Here is one of these early works, Le pont Neuf (1928)

and this one is the early versions of his La Rue (1929)

This second work Balthus will repaint later, and in this later reincarnation it will start resembling a fresco even more:

The street (1933)

It also one of the first ‘truly Balthusian’ works, with his characteristic combination of visual tranquillity and psychological tension. There is something very Kafkian about this works, a very specific feeling of suspension, of both time and space.

There is also another typical element of his works that is already here, these ambivalent signs, of either sexual violence or tender love (or both?):

Interestingly, but this scene – a young man either assaulting the girl or embracing her – was added at the very late stage of the painting. It did’n exist neither in the earlier studies for this painting, nor in the first version of 1929 (where we find a father with two kids on this place instead).

But this all happened later, in 1933. Before that Balthus spent two years in Morocco, where he was drafted in 1930. Here is the photograph showing him among the companions in arms.

He was secretary at the headquarters, and could have an opportunity to paint there too, but his most famous painting reflecting this experience, The Barracks, has been finished only later in Paris, in 1933.

When he returned to Paris, the art life there was as active as ever, but there were already other winds blowing; of surrealism.

Balthus never was an official member of any movement, including surrealism (although he was familiar with many big names, including Picasso, Joan Miró, Giacometti and many others). The surreality of Balthus’ works is not the same as ‘to you face’ style of Dali or Magritte, it is very quite and calm. As I wrote already, everything is suspended and slowed down in the works of Balthus, thus making it estranged and – in a paradoxic way – very intense. Try taking any of these ‘Balthus poses’ and hold in them for a while, and you will soon start feeling massive tension in your body.

This is one of more obviously surrealistic works, so called La fenêtre, The window (the work is also known under the title The fear of ghosts (1933).  Beside the already familiar combination of tension and tranquility, it also introduces another essential ingredient of Balthus, that I would describe as ‘incongruous eroticism’:

If we follow the famous maxim that the eyes are a mirror of the soul, then maybe these widely-opened eyes of the girl could be counted “the first mirrors” of Balthus. If so, they could even contain the reflection of the artist, thus making it also his first self-portrait.

I have recently found another ‘girl at the window’ of the same period by Balthus; it does add to the ‘surreality’ theme, but not so much to the ‘mirror’ one:

Interestingly, but the first commissioned work in Paris is again related to books; Balthus creates a series of illustrations for the Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. I don’t remember finishing this book (I started to read it when I was about 10 or so, but soon dropped, and never re-read); I am saying it also to warn that I am not 100% sure that the order of the illustrations I show here is any correspondence to the plot:

Again, as in the case with della Francesca, I think that half of the late Balthus can be tracked back to this series, with its jerky poses, hydrocephalic people, and pseudo-Gothic melodramas. Some of the illustrations look like studies for his later paintings.
Pull his hair when you go by… (Ch. 3) (1933)

Because Cathy taught him what she learned … (Ch. 6) (1933)

…The Room is Haunted! I’m Afraid of Being Alone!

The last one is in fact indeed a study, a sketch for one of the illustrations (however, I never found the actual illustration itself, and therefore can’t say for sure if there is a mirror there or not, it could be a window).

However, the very first mirror by Balthus does appear in one of the work from this series:

“Why have you this silk frok, then?” (Ch. 8) (1933)

The question about the silk frok can well be applied to the mirror, too. There is no real reason to use here, it doesn’t play any major role in the composition (and it doesn’t reflect anything – but none of the Balthus mirror will do.)

This illustration was used to create one of the earlier painting called La toilette de Cathie (1933) where we see the first ‘oil mirror’ of the artist:

Portrayed completely naked, yet in the presence of the fully dressed man, yet in the presence of an old maid, the girl makes this whole scene completely surreal, as if in the dream. The shocking contrast resembles Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe placed in the interior (thus we see the looking-glass). The atmosphere created in this painting will become the brand one of Balthus; following the suite of magic realism I would call it perversive surrealism.  Instead of Bronte, such illustrations would work better for Nabokov ‘s Ada.

It’s also a portrait, the sitting man resemble young Balthus too much to think otherwise; compare this man with a photograph of Balthus made by Man Ray in 1936:

I didn’t check if this design of the mirror existed hundred years ago (for some reasons I doubt that it did, but I need to study it properly.)

The study for the painting (above) shows that the mirror appears at the early stages of the composition, yet similar to the book illustration, it doesn’t play any significant role here, it’s jus an element of the room.

Some researchers suggest that it was his wife, Antoinette de Watteville, who posed as Cathie (and perhaps also for illustration for the novel by Bronte). The eventually married in 1937, thirteen years after they first met in 1924, but lived together for many years in Paris.

I will show below few more paintings from the 1930s, to demonstrate his approach of direct ‘borrowing’ from himself. This one, for example, is a direct replica of the Because Cathy taught him what she learned:

Children (1937)

The next painting also bears some resemblances to the Bronte’s illustrations  (the motif of pulling hairs can be traced in the Pull his hair when you go by…), but it’s also very indicative on its own, and could be considered pivotal for Balthus (or rather for the art-critics of the painter.)

Guitar Lesson (1934)

It was this Guitar Lesson that started the myth of a ‘sadistic’ and ‘pedophilic’ artist (ironically, his brother, Pierre Klossowski, is considered to be one of the most interesting commentators of the works by Marquis de Sade.)

The lesson was prohibited for display both in France and the US (more precisely, it was allowed in Paris, but the gallery was obliged to place it in a back room and place a warning for the visitors who would want to see it.)  Even today in many states of America it wouldn’t be possible to show it publicly (or the gallery owners would serious troubles with authorities.)

Here is one of the very recent reviews of this work, written in the context of the latest exhibition of Balthus in the MOMA:

“If he was not born with an artistic gift and drew untalented rough sketches of young girls being painfully molested (Guitar Lesson) he would be loudly denounced as a pervert. If he snapped pictures of young girls with their underpants pulled down the police would be called out to protect his potential victims.”  (see more comments of this sort here.)

If you ask me, there is not ‘perverted sadism’ or ‘child molestation’ here, but a complex interplay of allusions, deliberately made even more twisted by the master: body – pleasure – suffering – light – music – dream – passion – care – tenderness – and yes, sex too; not even ‘sex’ per se, but sensuality.  But also a prank, mischief, trickster, all the deceptive tricks that Balthus the Joker loved so much.  (Here it’s worth mentioning that the same Pierre Klossowski was also a well-known researchers of Nietzsche, another famous prankster (Klossowski’s Nietzsche et le cercle vicieux is considered one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century that impacted Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard and many other best thinkers of the century.)

Compare this early study for the Guitar Lesson with the 15th century Pieta, by Enguerrand Quarton:

This painting is in the Louvre now, and could be even known to Balthus. But even if not, the same della Francesca has a striking and enigmatic work, Madonna and Child with Saints and Duke of Urbino (1472)

And if to start analysing other allusions, we can even refer to the Belle Gabrielle with her nipped the nipple:

I am pretty sure that Balthus himself would discard all these allusions as groundless, and instead call to enjoy the work as is, both artistically and psychologically.

I wrote earlier about this strange feeling of suspension, benumbment created in his work; I would use ‘freezing’ if his works wouldn’t be so warm and lit with his magical light. Another metaphor that comes to my mind is a jelly, when all the movements are suddenly halted, the noise cancelled, and even the light seems to be stopped. In the same manner we see all the psychological and social mechanics arrested in this works.

There is a funny word in Dutch, tussendoortje; it often means a snack food eaten between main meals of the day, and literally it means just that, ‘in-between‘.  For the scenes of Balthus as such social tussendoortjes, they are not in the main flow of events but located somewhat in-between them, simultaneously existing and not quite so. That’s why the words ‘dreamy’, ‘drowsy’ are used to often to describe this atmosphere.

After more than fifty years after the Lesson Balthus will paint a guitar again, in his Nude with a guitar (1986), as if wishing to say one more time, this time explicitly, about this arrested light-music of sensuality.

But let’s go back to the 1930s for a while; here are few more examples of Balthus the Pedophilic:

Andre Derain and his daughter (1937)

Joan Miro et sa fille Dolores (1938)

Small issue is that these men are not maniacs but world-renown artists, painted with their beloved daughters. But another issue, and perhaps not so small, is that people who label Balthus ‘pedophilic’ don’t really care.

Plus, they can always refer to a much larger volume of his works similar to these ones:

Girl with a cat (1937)

Thérèse dreaming (1938)

Thérèse (1938)

Both then, and later Balthus also painted much more explicit works, like this full-scale ‘Reclining nude‘ (1938) – however, it is also known under the title La victime.

But the mainstream public opinion keep seeing him as a ‘pedo-painter’, fixated on young girls’ panties. The debates resemble the ones about Nabokov’s Lolita;  in fact, the works by Balthus are often used for the covers of this novel’s editions:

As I wrote, these debates didn’t cool down with time, people do cross swords (very phallic symbols, by the way) over whether his works are high art or low pornographic trash.  The most recent account in FascCompany, comparing Balthus and American Apparel, puts it very bluntly: “Those pictures are kinda pervy“.

If we could imagine a global, world-wide opinion poll about Balthus, the results could approximately look like that: 6,66 billion people never heard Balthus; for ~666 million he was and will remain to be a perverted painter; ~666 thousands would call him a talented artist powerfully expressing female sensuality, and 666 people will be gently iterating the beads of elusive allusions and interpretations; while us, the remaining six…

On the cats; we saw a few already, and we will see many more further. Panties or not, but Balthus was also fixated on cats. The title of this self-portrait, Le roi des chats – The King of Cats (1935) – is explanatory:

All the above works are important to be aware about, but the don’t have any mirrors in them, alas. Interestingly, the one below also doesn’t have one, but in many senses it is the first ‘real’ mirror of Balthus, a a very original one:

Alice at the mirror (1933)

From the first glance, we don’t see any mirror in the painting, it is present only in the title – but when you read it, it immediately emerges in your mind, too. In fact, the viewer herself becomes the mirror in this work! And simultaneously an observer, a voyeur peeping for the underdressed (and seemingly underage) girl. Le miroir c’est le spectateur, as Balthus himself formulated the ‘message’ of the work. (The girl, by the way, was young but not so much underage, her real name is Betty Holland and she was a wife of one his friends in Paris).

The question about her age is perhaps less interesting that the one whether Balthus really tried to depict himself in her eyes? In this case it would be a self-portrait, similar to the one accidentally made by Steve McCurry, with his Afghan Girl.

If we would play into interactive art, we could place real mirrors into her eyes so that the viewers would really see their reflections.)

Speaking about self-portrait, this the painter in 1940:

Self-portrait (1940)

The war has changed many things; after the German invasion into France Balthus with his family had to flee, they first went to Savoy, and then to Switzerland, first to Berne where his wife’s parents, and then to French-speaking Geneva.

Mirrors aside, I really like a few ‘mountains’ Balthus made during these years – look at his beautiful Montagne, for example; it is the most known work, but he made few more beautiful works of that kind:

In 1947, soon after the war’s end he returns to France and settle in the Chateau de Chassy, a real castle not far from Paris – you can see it in the background:

I mention all these transitions in space also because many of the Balthus’s are set in specific interiors, and it would be great to have more knowledge about the actual context where he created them.

Take, for instance, his famous Les Beaux Jours, translated either as Happy Days or Golden Days. This is one of the most famous work by the artist, and also one of the most interesting ‘mirrors’ of Balthus.

The painting is completed in 1944, but the earlier studies go back to 1942, it was an unusually long project. It is also quite a large painting, 150 x 200 cm (and it has ‘not one, but two’ mirrors – the hand-held one, and one above the fireplace’s mantle).

In one of the earlier versions we also find a cat:

But then it disappeared – taking the ‘fire-boy’ with it, too:

The boy has eventually returned, completing now famous composition.

We also see that Balthus was playing with the girl’s poses, and the ways she would hold – and look at – the mirror. The upturned pose will appear later, but for the final version of this painting he’s chosen a more classical ‘reclining woman’ one.  The coach she is laying on could be the real one, but also symbolic, referring to the coached of psychoanalysis. Balthus was obviously very familiar with the theory of Freud, moreover, later he would become a friend of Lacan, who, in turn, will become a passionate collector of his works.  But his take on psychoanalysis is similar to the Nabokov’s one where you never know if it is real psychoanalytical motifs or a cynical prank about them.

There is nothing new about the theme ‘reclining (semi)nude near fireplace’ itself, it was widely used already for centuries (there is even a mirror here, though on a wall, not in the hand of the beauty):

In some version we can even see the boy:

so the theme could easily be define as ‘archetypical’.

Yet few other versions are so intensely sensual, erotic even, yet remaining almost innocent, as the one by Balthus.  Because of this very unique take, the scene became very popular and is the subject of multiple remakes and re-interpretations. I may later make a separate posting, about re-interpretations and re-appropriations of Balthus’s works, but for now just a couple of example for this particular painting.

Hisaji Hara is a Japanese artist who created a whole series of works after Balthus, and Happy Days is just one of those:

Hisaji Hara – A study of ‘The Happy Days’ by Balthus (2009)

Most recently the scene was re-enacted by no less than Victoria Beckham), for the August 2010 issue of the Allure magazine.

As often happens with her, the scene became vulgar (including adding a reflection to the mirror, which is anti-Balthusian in nature). Surprise, surprise, but the readers didn’t value this appropriation too high:

Why do I call this mirror ‘unusual’? Not only because it resembles a dildo, but rather because its role here is indeed very ambivalent; from one side, the girl merely look at it and can’t see much more than her own face (though she could also secretly spy on the boy near the fireplace, the later is a well-known symbol of ardor and lust). Yet from the other side (literally, from the left one) the mirror also reflects the sunlight, directing it to the girl’s face (and then again, the sun is even more the symbol of love and desire).

Did Balthus really want to embed all these connotations into the painting? Or we just assign them following the logic of pop-psychoanalysis? Or may be we need to leave all these ‘symbolisms’ aside, and see the face value of the scene, a very gentle moment of the birth (sic!) of feminine sensuality/sexuality, that is often coincides with such attentive, inquisitive self-exploration of her own transforming body?  (and yes, the mirror is the best friend of the girl in this exploration).

This is not yet another re-enactment (although it is too, in some sense – this is the picture from the famous series of photographs of Balthus made for the Life magazine in the 1950s). Here we can see the fire-place had a real prototype; we also see that the boys and the girls use mirrors for very different purposes.

I mentioned this theme of light/sun/sensuality already in the Guitar Lesson, and it appeared again in the Golden Days; I can see its presence in many more works by Balthus, whether they have mirrors or not.

Nude with a cat (1949)

Girl with a cat (1949)  – here we can even see a possible mirror, in the upper left corner, above the cat.

Room (1948) – one of the most enigmatic works in this series.

We don’t see any more mirrors in this ‘upturned series’ – but they do appear in another series of Balthus’s paintings that can be defined as ‘Girls in the Bathroom”. The first work that can be assigned to this group is called The Room (1947-8), and the mirror here is still the mantel one (and as happens most often with Balthus, doesn’t play any role in the plot):

But in the next work, so called Georgette dressing (1948) the mirror is one the main heroes of the composition:

Again, a woman (or a girl) combing her hair near is one of the most widely employed subject in art, and it’s also intimately interlaced with the mirrors. One of the very first ‘mirrors in art’, by Giovanni Bellini, depicts the same moment, this famous ‘mirror cocoon’ that emerges when a woman looks at the mirror, trying to fix her hair:

The proximity of a mirror is another popular subject, worth exploring in more details. The amount of objects laying around the mirror, their functions, their use by the lady in question – these are very interesting dimension of the ‘mirrors-in-art’ theme.

The next ‘Girl at the mirror (1948) directly resembles the previous one, but it also have one interesting difference: the girl here touches the mirror, she almost holds it:

She seemingly doesn’t look at the mirror, and her ‘cocoon’ is not present (or temporarily broken.)

In the next work of this period we again don’t see the mirror, and are invited to imagine it – though not become this mirror like in case of Alice:

Girl at the toilette (1949)

The mirror is fully present in the next, later work of this series:

Balthus – Nude girl before the mirror (1955)

In one of the earlier studies for this work we see that initially Balthus planned to make the girl more active, she stretches her hand forward, toward the mirror:

, but then he changed his mind, and at the end we see his typical suspension, the girl stands as if made our of marble (yet still being very alive and tender.)

I don’t really know why Balthus the traces of the grid on the painting as well; I always thought it’s a sign of a very newbie apprentice, but apparently the Big Masters could allow that too.  Perhaps it was a special style, of showing the making-of of the painting process, but I am not sure.

It’s difficult to evaluate how ‘realistic’ these works are, in a sense of depicting the real objects from real life, i.e., whether these ‘mirrors’ and ‘fireplaces’ had real prototypes or simply imaginary creations. I think that even Balthus was copying certain real objects, he was transferring them on a way so much that they barely resemble the initial triggers.  But I may well be wrong, and in the future we will see the work tracing the origin of all the mirrors in his paintings to some actual prototypes.

Take this Nude stepping out from the bath (1957) – does this ‘bathroom mirror’ resembles the one in the bathroom of Balthus himself?

In this case the grid transforms the wall into the one covered by the ceramic tiles; I also saw the mirrors made in the same way, as if made from a set of tiles, but again, I am not sure if this was the case or these ’tiles’ are merely a byproduct of an artistic manner.

I will jump through thirty years here, to the beginning of the 1980-s, when Balthus created two best mirrors (in my humble opinion, of course):

Girl with yellow towel before the mirror (1981)

Notice that this first of his ‘best mirror’ is again only imaginary; though the second one is a pretty tangible ‘dildo’:

Nude girl with the mirror (1981)

These two are the example of total beauty, and at the same time they are the closest to the frescos, both in terms of light and textures.

The ‘dildo’ mirror was also used in many of his earlier works, for example, in the Three Sisters (1955):

Although there are a couple of mirror-less versions of this work, too.

The next work with a mirror is know as The Turkish Room (1963):

However, the naked woman reclining on a sofa rather resembles East-Asian woman, not Turkish one. The painting begs for some explanations. There is more then ten years difference between this work and the previous mirror, and these were very unusual years for Balthus.  He becomes more and more known, not only Europe but also in the States.  He was appointed, by André Malraux, then the Minister of Culture in France,  a director of the Villa Medici in Rome, de fact the French cultural center in Italy. He lived for more than ten years in Italy, I guess a ‘dream comes true’ for such a genuine lover of the Italian Renaissance as Balthus.

It was Rome when Balthus met his second wife, Setsuko; they married in 1967, when Balthus was 59, and Setsuko 25 years old:

This is a much later photograph, circa 1976 году, in the center we see Federico Fellini, who Balthus got acquainted in Italy.

There are suggestions that in this Turkish Room we see the same Setsuko; at some point Balthus become fancy for everything Asian, and especially Japanese. They’ve been to Tokyo few times, and there are also a few works of him that could be described as Japonisms; some of them have mirrors.

This one – Japanese girl with a black mirror (1967) –  even has the Japanese mirror, at least its design resembles the one depicted on many Japanese woodcuts.

The second one also resembles the screens that we often see in Asian houses – Japanese woman with red table (1967):

However, this may be not so much an Asian mirror; I lately found a photograph of the Grand Chalet   Rossinierre, in Switzerland, where Balthus moved in 1977, and where he lived until his death in 2001.

We see that it is indeed a mirror, not a screen, and most likely it was this mirror that inspired the one from the Japanese woman with red table.

I have actually been – if not *in* this house, then at least near (the house itself was closed when we came there many years ago with i_shmael; I’ve seen the exterior of the house, and even this one I didn’t take pictures of, this is not mine one:

As often happens when I write about a painter, I tend to select only his works with mirrors, and it may create a feeling that Balthus painted only such works. That’s not exactly true, Balthus also depicted many young girls *without* any mirrors whatsoever:

(this, and few other photographs I show are from the famous Life series, where Balthus is shown with his niece Frederique Tison, and in many ways they parody the most popular cliches about the painter.)

Here is another one from this series, related to many ‘Girls at the Window’ created by Balthus:

Again, I will show a few works by Balthus with no mirrors in them, just to show the broader scope of his oeuvre:

La patience (1943)

Chassy by the fireplace at workshop (1955)

Jeune fille à la fenêtre (1955)

Young girl at the window (1957)

The last mirror series of Balthus lasted more than 13 years, The first work was created in 1977, soon after they moved to Switzerland:

Cat in the mirror (1977)

It is a funny work, and an interesting one, even if only nu the fact that here the mirror reflects the kitten; we don’t see this reflection, but are invited to believe it is there.  The work continues the long  tradition in the European art, to depict various animals looking at their reflections n the mirrors:

The next one was made almost ten years later, and with different model (and I guess with a different kitty, too):

Cat in the mirror II (1986)

After three years balthus comes back to the same subject again:

Cat in the mirror III (1989)

We now the model for this painting, she was a daughter of one of the village dwellers, whose parents agreed that she would pose to the painter.

Apparently Balthus loved this work very much, it stayed in his house till the very death, and apparently is still in the house. I wonder if Balthus knew the story about catching tigers with a mirror when creating these works?

His fame was so large that people were ready for anything to set their daughters as his models. I have recently found the memoirs of some Denyse Bertoni who has managed to take an interview from Balthus (the latter was know by his dislike of the reporters). Eventually they got closer to each other, and in one moment she has offered to Balthus to user her daughters as his models  – “I told him I had given birth to two daughters who could have been models for his paintings”.  One of them did pose for one of his paintings.

This is the photograph of Balthus not long before death, with Setsuko, and a mirror.

Duane Michals – Balthus and Setsuko (2000)

Michals is a genius photographer, but he made a mistake; there are many mirrors of Balthus, but none of them reflect anything.

NB: I am often asked to write my *conclusions* more explicitly; it’s all nice that Balthus has painted so many mirrors, but how it all contributes to my Mirror of Future project?  My take is that the things we see in Balthus works are not actually the mirrors, or at least not the mirrors as we tend to see them now. Perhaps his first mirrors resemble our current assumptions on what is the mirror, and how it should be use, but his later work follow a very different ‘mirror paradigm’, somewhat close to the way mirrros had been used, and conceptualised in Ancient Japan or Chins.

I have collected a lot of information about these cultures, and the way they understood, and used mirrors (unfortunately I never managed to compile the text out of all these materials yet).  In short, the things we now call ‘Asian Mirrors’ (and that were mostly made our of bronze) did not serve merely cosmetic purposed, but had been used as sacral, ritualistic objects,  symbolising the Sun, Life, and Sex (in a broader sense). One of the forms of their use was, in fact, a game to send – and to catch – a sunbeam,

Interestingly, but in Japanese the word “subneam” (日光, Nikkō) resembles the name of the country, (日本, Nippon or Nihon); and during the War the Japanese flag looked like that:

I am told that such far-fetching interpretations are totally arbitrary and not grounded in any serious exploration. I shouldn’t argue much, almost everything in this blog is ‘totally arbitrary’ and ‘not grounded in anything’.

Another question is where Balthus himself, or a least his close circle of friends would recognize these these ideas as relevant?  As I wrote earlier, Balthus fiercely rejected any efforts to ‘interpret’ his work, insisting that they should be merely  ‘viewed’. There are sings, however, that he wasn’t completely alien to the idea of playing with symbols and allegories – which is also very excepted from the pupil of della Francesca.

The Mediterranean Cat (1949)

Yet the question what exactly does this or that work symbolise remain to be either unanswered or the answer is often completely vague.  A special art, to produce so much of they works that should have only ‘face value’, right on their surface, and yet leave everybody puzzled. A lesson for all of us, the students of the Futures of Mirror.


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