The Street, 1933
In 1933, The Street caught the attention of the Surrealists because of its strange, almost dreamlike atmosphere: all the figures seem indifferent to one another and carve up the space into a series of continuous private worlds. Even if he was at that time associated with Artaud (he did the sets for his Cenci) and with Giacometti, Balthus refused to call on an imaginary world in any way. In fact his pre-war painting is closer to realism and Neue Sachlichkeit, if not indeed to Courbet (The Mountain, 1937). After 1945, his painting became denser, while his subject-matter changed. The nude made its appearance and, in particular, adolescent girls caught sleeping or in equivocal private moments - half-way between innocence and perversity. But the rigorous composition and slow execution remained unchanged (Balthus would happily spend years on a single canvas, and go on to produce variants). He kept too the love of his craft, admiring Piero della Francesca and oriental painting, in which he discovered examples of work concerned not with realistic representation but with 'identification'. In his canvases, time is frozen, the traffic of life is stilled, gestures are suspended before they can declare their purpose: the scene is there to be uncovered by anyone who can find mystery in the anodyne. 'We did not know how to see reality and all the disturbing things our apartments, our loved ones and our streets conceal,' wrote Albert Camus in 1949 in the preface to one of Balthus's rare exhibitions. Yet the painter lamented the loss of craft among his contemporaries - virtually the only exceptions being Bonnard, Braque and Rouan (whom he had met, in fact, at the Villa Medici, of which he was director from 1961 to 1977). He deplored, too, the fact that painting so often became an occasion for discussion, while for him it remained quite irreducible to any language."