Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) (1908-2001)
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) (1908-2001)

Lady Abdy

Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) (1908-2001)
Lady Abdy
signed with initials and dated 'Bs – 1935' (lower left); signed and dated (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
72 7/8 x 53 1/8 in. (185.1 x 134.9 cm.)
Painted in 1935
Lady Iya Abdy, Paris (acquired from the artist, 1935 and until at least 1984).
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London and Thomas Ammann Fine Art, AG., Zürich (until 1985).
Private collection, Norway; sale, Sotheby’s, London, 29 November 1988, lot 82.
Acquired at the above sale by the family of the present owner.
A. Artaud, Oeuvres complètes, Paris, 1964, vol. 5, p. 53.
J. Clair and V. Monnier, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, Paris, 1995, p. 124, no. P80 (illustrated, p. 125; listed as signed and dated on the reverse).
C. Roy, Balthus, Boston, 1996, p. 96 (illustrated in color, p. 99).
N. F. Weber, Balthus: A Biography, New York, 1999, p. 258 (illustrated, p. 260).
J. Clair, Balthus, New York, 2001, p. 442 (illustrated in color, fig. 1).
S. Rewald, Balthus: Time Suspended, Paintings and Drawings, 1932-1960, Munich, 2007, p. 18 (illustrated, fig. 21).
Paris, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Balthus, November 1983-May 1984, pp. 132 and 344, no. 10/29 (illustrated and illustrated again in color; listed as signed and dated on the reverse) and p. 70, no. 8 (illustrated in color, p. 71) respectively.
Sale room notice
Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Derain/Balthus/Giacometti from 15 June-29 October 2017 at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Please note the updated cataloguing for this lot.
Please note the correct dimensions of this work are: 72 7/8 x 53 1/8 in. (185.1 x 134.9 cm.).
Please note updated provenance for this work is:
Lady Iya Abdy, Paris (acquired from the artist, 1935 and until at least 1984).
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London and Thomas Ammann Fine Art, AG., Zürich (until 1985).
Private collection, Norway; sale, Sotheby’s, London, 29 November 1988, lot 82.
Acquired at the above sale by the family of the present owner.

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Derain/Balthus/Giacometti from 15 June-29 October 2017 at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris.

You propose I wait, strange window;
Your beige curtain nearly billows.
O window, should I accept your offer or,
Window, defend myself? Who would I wait for?

So wrote the great Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Balthus’s early mentor and for a time his mother’s lover, whose haunting verses are filled with imagery of windows–windows that provide clarity, admitting light and establishing the perimeters of what we see, or alternatively, as in this stanza, windows that pose a threat, provoking the same powerful qualms that we feel at the very edge of a precipice (The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. A. Poulin, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1979, p. 49).
It is above all this latter role, disquieting and slightly sinister, that the window assumes in the present painting–a grand and imposing composition, nearly six feet high, that Balthus painted in 1935, during the heyday of Surrealism. A woman with angular features and cascading blond waves, dressed stunningly in a long maroon gown with billowing sleeves and a full skirt, is poised–frozen, mannequin-like–in front of the glass, her face turned halfway back toward the viewer with a look of heavy-lidded distress. Her head is pressed into her right forearm in a gesture of self-conscious theatricality, her hand trapping a clump of hair against the window casement. She pulls the sheer drapery aside with her left hand, one bare foot elevated on the baseboard as though she were preparing to fling herself over the sill–a parody of the well-worn romantic image of a figure seen from the back at an open window, gazing into the distance. Pale light enters the room from outside but does little to illuminate the dark interior; the view through the window is enclosed and claustrophobic, suggesting confinement rather than freedom.
Is this anguished woman planning to jump of her own volition? Has she paused to re-consider, or is she checking over her shoulder for witnesses to her desperate act? Might she be attempting to escape an unseen assailant–or perhaps even the scene of a crime that she herself has committed? “She is more demonic than terrorized,” Nicholas Fox Weber has written, “but…she looks as if she is being forcibly pushed by an invisible agent” (op. cit., 1999, p. 159).
One way or another, the very act of viewing the canvas implicates us in the terrible events. We are placed in the role either of attacker–a proxy for the artist, wielding his brush like a lethal weapon–or of passive, helpless voyeur to the woman’s impending demise. Balthus’s technique, with its characteristic precision of line, rational pictorial space, and earthy colors, only enhances this sense of psychological immediacy. Eschewing abstraction, which would afford the viewer some distance, Balthus brings us into direct confrontation with this ravishing and provocative human drama.
The model for the painting was Lady Iya Abdy (1897-1993), a strikingly beautiful blonde over six feet tall (Cecil Beaton famously claimed that she “invented size”) and a luminary of Parisian society during the 1920s and 1930s. Born Iya Grigorievna de Gay in Saint Petersburg in 1897, she escaped with her family to Finland during the Russian Revolution and subsequently moved to France, where she met, married, and soon divorced the English ship-owner Sir Robert Abdy, the fifth baronet so named. She frequented the now-legendary salon of the Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, champion of Surrealism at its most scandalous, which is most likely where she first met Balthus.
In 1935, the year of the present painting, Lady Abdy financed and starred in a gruesome and controversial production of Les Cenci by the theater visionary Antonin Artaud. Balthus’s close friend and kindred spirit, Artaud shared with the painter both a ferociously original creativity and a dark-eyed, bone-lean visage; the resemblance was so striking that the two were often mistaken for one another. Artaud’s play, based on a drama by Shelley (1819) and a novella by Stendhal (1837), both of the same name, tells the horrific true story of a virtuous young noblewoman, Beatrice Cenci, in sixteenth-century Rome, who was tortured and raped by her sadistic father and subsequently executed at the wheel for arranging his murder. Artaud, who played the monstrous Count Cenci alongside Iya Abdy’s Beatrice, had been developing the concept of a “Theater of Cruelty” since 1932, and Les Cenci represented the first–and as it would turn out, the only–time that he applied these principles on stage. Balthus was instrumental in this project, suggesting the Shelley source to Artaud, introducing him to Abdy, and designing the sets and costumes for the show (see Clair and Monnier, nos. T1606-1624).
By assaulting the audience’s senses with bright lights, loud sounds, violent gestures, and highly graphic imagery, Artaud hoped with Les Cenci to release them from their quotidian mindset and shock them into confronting what he called “the savage under the skin.” “Apart from a few very rare exceptions,” he declared, “the general tendency of the era has been to forget to wake up. I have attempted to give a jolt to this hypnotic sleep by direct, physical means” (quoted in N. Weber, op. cit., 1999, p. 168). Given Artaud’s notoriety and Abdy’s social position, the premier of Les Cenci–at the Théâtre aux Folies-Wagram on 6 May 1935–was nothing short of a major event on the Parisian cultural scene, well-attended and widely reviewed. Balthus’s sets, which combined classical elements in out-of-scale proportions to convey a sense of claustrophobia and foreboding, received great praise in the press, as did Abdy’s exceptional beauty. Artaud’s turn as Count Cenci, however, met with utter derision, and the performance was forced to fold after only fifteen nights.
In the present painting, Lady Abdy seems still to be playing her role as the doomed Beatrice, transposed from the stage of the modest Folies-Wagram to Balthus’s cramped attic studio at 4 rue de Furstenberg. Her dark red dress, by the famed French couturier Madame Grès, is very close to one that the artist designed for Artaud’s production. “Has the sixteenth-century Beatrice Cenci strayed into a Parisian apartment?” Sabine Rewald has rhetorically asked. “Is she wondering how she got there?” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1984, p. 70). One might imagine, somewhere in the dimly lit room, a corpse with a knife in its back–that of Count Cenci, of course, or instead of Balthus himself, surrendering to his deepest fear of being victimized by a young woman. The expression on Lady Abdy’s face, then, is guilt; she moves aside the curtain to let in a spiritually cleansing light, only to be faced with a vista of yet more windows, behind any of which may lurk a possible witness to her heinous crime.
In 1934, on the occasion of Balthus’s first solo exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, Antonin Artaud wrote a short, laudatory review for La Nouvelle Revue Française that became one of the few texts on his own work of which Balthus approved. Two years later, having fled in despair to Mexico after the failure of Les Cenci, Artaud published a lengthier analysis of Balthus’s vision. “Balthus depicts Iya Abdy as a primitive artist would have painted an angel,” he wrote about the present painting, “with assure a technique and the same understanding of space, of line, of hollows, of the rays of light that create space. This is Iya Abdy’s face, these are her hands devoured by light. But another being, who is Balthus, seems to be behind her face and in her body, like a sorcerer who would take possession of the body and soul of a woman, while he himself is slumped on his bed with a dagger in his heart” (quoted in ibid., p. 70).
Rewald has related about the present work: “Besides being a marvelous and powerful painting, it is also important because it was only the second portrait which Balthus accepted [to paint] in February 1935, after he had stopped painting for nearly a year following the scandal of the first exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in 1934.I visited Lady Abdy in 1980 when she lived in Sanary-sur-Ville in the South of France. The large portrait overwhelmed her small room in a small house. She was very attached to the painting, having taken it to Mexico where she had lived for a while. She still spoke with a heavy Russian accent. She was dressed in black and looked very dramatic.”
Lady Abdy was the second major canvas depicting a woman at a window that Balthus painted; the first, entitled simply La fenêtre, was completed in 1933 (though later re-worked) and functions as a veritable thematic pendant to the present scene (Clair and Monnier, no. P72; Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington). The earlier painting depicts a terrified young woman facing an unseen attacker, her back to an open window, limbs akilter. She braces herself against an impending fall with one hand and raises the other in a futile gesture of protest and defense; her blouse is opened to reveal one breast, as though an assault had already begun. In his own version of the “Theater of Cruelty,” Balthus set up the scene by rushing with a dagger and a menacing mien at his shy young model (a fifteen-year-old girl named Elsa Henriquez) when she entered his studio, provoking the expression of fright that he sought.
As in Lady Abdy, the window in La fenêtre has become a locus of physical danger and psychic disorder, while simultaneously evoking the Renaissance notion of painting as a window on the world. “Balthus was showing the act of painting to be a means of terrorizing,” Weber has explained. “He could subjugate his portrait subject and hold her captive through the devices of his studio: the same means that ultimately enabled him to conquer a large audience. Art is a power struggle, a process of personal metamorphosis, a means of taking command and astounding the bourgeoisie” (op. cit., 1999, p. 252). What is more, the model in La fenêtre bears no small resemblance to Balthus’s mother, the artist Baladine Klossowska, who collaborated with her lover Rilke in the 1920s on an illustrated book of poems that took windows as their theme. Should the painting, then, be construed as an imagined act of matricide–the symbolic counterpart to the all-too-real patricide at the heart of the tale of Beatrice Cenci/Lady Abdy?
Balthus returned to the theme of the woman at the window in a major pair of paintings from the mid-1950s (Clair and Monnier, nos. P253 and P277; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), but how different now the milieu. In both, a young girl, seen from behind, gazes out onto a verdant farmyard, replete with the bounty of early spring. Although a Balthusian secretiveness remains (we do not see the girl’s face, and never will), the element of peril so central to Lady Abdy and La fenêtre is entirely gone. The wainscoting and the open shutters delineate the corner of the room so that the model, and by extension the viewer, are securely encased; the frame of the window, like that of the canvas, lends permanence to the sun-infused scene outdoors, organizing and regulating the natural world. It is another poem by Rilke, this one celebrating the very act of seeing, that now reigns supreme:

She was in a window mood that day:
To live seemed no more than to stare.
From a dizzy non-existence she could see
A world coming to complete her heart. (op. cit., 1979, p. 41)

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