The Timeless Art of a Man Born on Leap Day

French painter Balthasar Klossowski, known as Balthus (1908-2001), was famous, or rather infamous, for painting controversial, sometimes unnervingly erotic, but always powerful paintings, portraits and landscapes. Shortly after his death, Michael Kimmelman, an art critic for the New York Times, wrote that “because he was born on Feb. 29, 1908, leap day, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once told him that this was like slipping through a crack in time, which gave him access to a ‘kingdom independent of all the changes we undergo.’’’ It’s a notion that Balthus seemed to enjoy embracing.

It was just one of the many unusual and unique aspects of this artist’s life: For instance, he often refused interviews (Michael Kimmelman in 1996 was one of the few) and adamantly refused to be photographed. In fact, for nearly 30 years, he repeated the following statement: “Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known.” Yet, from Sept. 25, 2013 through January 12, 2014, you’ll be able to crack open a bit of the mystery of this important but eccentric artist when some of his timeless paintings will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibition titled Balthus: Cats and Girls —Paintings and Provocations.

As Kimmelman and many other critics have pointed out, it’s hard to pinpoint what makes the paintings of Balthus work. He’s a realist, or at least a representational artist, yet there are elements of surrealism in which he distorts perspective and manipulates scale. There’s also flatness and geometry, Kimmelman said, that seems to make him modern. Yet, his light seems to echo the illumination and chiaroscuro that seeped into the wet plaster in the frescos of the early Renaissance.

The show will include almost three dozen paintings, created between the mid-1930s and the 1950s, as well as 40 ink drawings for the book Mitsou that were created in 1919, when Balthus was 11 years old. This will be the first exhibition of Balthus’ work in the U.S. in almost 30 years. For more, visit the museum’s website, metmuseum.org.

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