Respecting the secrets of childhood

THIS painting is a study in the seriousness of childhood. It is also a study in the seriousness of figure painting. Its painter, called Balthus (but, as a descendant of an old Polish family, more fully titled Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola), has often been characterized as an artist who has persistently plowed his own furrow regardless of modern tendencies in art.

He was born in Paris in 1908, more or less at the same time as Cubism was invented by Braque and Picasso. In any but the most tentative sense, though, Balthus's art has been untouched by the reverberations from this new view of the world. Nor has another concern of modern painters -- Abstraction -- had much overt bearing on his procedures.

His early interest in previous artists tended on the one hand toward Chinese art and on the other toward the Italian Renaissance. He copied works by Piero della Francesca, notably his calmly authoritative ``Resurrection of Christ'' in Borgo San Sepolcro. He also studied Masaccio's frescoes in Florence.

Balthus was drawn, therefore, to painting with compositional and constructional power, in which human figures become elements in a tranquil, definite order, and in which the organization of spaces and solids has profound significance. Cubism tended to confound, in the propagation of its own fruitful kind of ambiguity, the clear definition of spaces and solids that had been such a revelation to painters during the Renaissance.

One painter Balthus does admire in common with the Cubists, however, is Cezanne, sharing with this 19th-century French artist a desire for painting to be part of his own time and yet acknowledge the established achievements of the past. Deliberation and substantiality in Cezanne's paintings are held in tension with a kind of conscious uncertainty. In some of Bal-thus's pencil drawings his appreciation of these qualities is very apparent, but with a bias toward substantiality rather than uncertainty. Poussin, too, was a formative influence on the young Balthus. After deciding, at the age of 16, to become an artist, Balthus spent three months copying one painting in the Louvre by this classical 17th-century artist.

Balthus's peculiar vision cannot, of course, be understood by sole reference to his ``masters,'' but his choice of certain ones does emphasize the fact that he has worked within, rather than in opposition to, a tradition. He has developed it on his own terms and used it as a means of exploring his own concerns.

One of those concerns is childhood. In his monograph on the artist, Jean Leymarie quotes words written by the German romantic poet Ludwig Tieck to a painter-friend: ``I would gladly dispense with action, passion, composition and all the rest if you could open to me with rosy keys the land of a child's mysterious thoughts.''

It is clear that Balthus, in an early work like ``The Children,'' was far from willing to dispense with composition -- the contrasted positions of the brother and sister, and the organization of their forms and contours in space and in relation to those of the floor, wall, chair, table, shadow, and light, have extraordinary order and balance -- yet the reveries and absorptions of childhood are captured in the attitudes of his young models with considerable empathy.

The apparently dispassionate treatment of his subject, making the two children sculptural objects no less than the furniture, contributes enigmatically to the feeling of childhood's secrecy and inwardness as inaccessible to outsiders.

These two were the children of the artist's neighbors. Hubert Blanchard, wearing the French school-child's tunic, is, in the neatness of the French language, ``accoud'e'' (leaning on his elbow) and places one knee on the simple chair, while his other leg is turned away, with the pliable awkwardness of an absent-minded posture, so that his left foot, firmly placed on the ground like a foot by Masaccio, points upstage. His face is painted less crisply than his sister's and seems lost in a dream.

Th'er`ese Blanchard -- whom Balthus also used as a model on other occasions -- is painted with an even more deliberate awareness of the distribution of her weight on the ground. As if she were a sculpture, the positioning of her key supports -- knee, elbow, and wrist -- as well as the incisively realized description of the third dimension by the angle of her arms and the twist of her left foot invite us to identify with a position that most of us experienced in childhood but don't often indulge as adults.

This picture, painted in 1937, was owned by Picasso and now belongs to the Mus'ee Picasso in Paris. It is seen by one biographer of Balthus as the start of a more stable phase in his work, after some brooding, troubled pictures. Certainly if it is compared with a drawing made four years earlier that is obviously the genesis for its composition, ``The Children'' is restrained and calm. This drawing was one of 14 illustrations the artist made for Emily Bront"e's ``Wuth-ering Heights.'' Characteristically he concentrated on the part of the novel that deals with the childhood of Heathcliff and Cathy, and he is moved by some of the fraught, wild atmosphere of the book and its protagonists.

``The Children,'' by contrast, is a formal, self-contained painting and not an illustration at all. In some ways it seems closer to the quiet domesticity of a Chardin than to the angst of the Bront"es. 30--{et

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