Grand Master Of Aloofness

The title of "World's Greatest living painter" is always suspect. Unlike, say, WBA junior welterweight champion, it's sweeping and subjective. Moreover, the unofficial belt always seems to go to a loner who doesn't subscribe to one of modern art's guiding "isms." At the middle of the century, Matisse was champ. When he died, the title eventually fell to Francis Bacon. With Bacon gone, some connoisseurs are looking to anoint Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, 85, better known simply as Balthus. His dreamily realistic pictures are the subject of a retrospective exhibition (running through Aug. 29), containing more than 150 paintings and drawings, at the Musee Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Balthus's fans claim that he has singlehandedly preserved painting's classic tradition, running from Piero delta Francesca right up through Cezanne, in the face of modern art's insatiable appetite for novelty. That feat, apparently, required Balthus to paint a lot of nubile young girls. In "The Golden Days" (1945-46), a pubescent female with an off-the-shoulder decolletage gazes at her newly seductive self in a mirror while her skirt hikes itself (a Balthus trademark) past midthigh. In the background, a mysterious male who could be the artist (Balthus frequently includes himself, seen from the rear, in his paintings) stokes a fireplace. Read from left to right, the painting pointedly describes the youthful passage from cool innocence (note the white washbowl) to heated sexuality. "Golden Days" and several others like it have caused detractors to think of Balthus as a kind of Humbert Humbert at the easel.

Balthus was born in Paris to a painter father and a watercolorist mother who entertained the likes of poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Considered a prodigy, he spent his early artistic career avoiding cubism, despising surrealism and finding dada "a lot more droll." Despite his professed aversion to publicity (he once suggested that a catalog essay on him begin, "Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known"), he will on occasion actually speak to an art critic, in English. "My first language is English," he told NEWSWEEK. "When I was an infant, I had a Scottish nurse. The first sounds I emitted were in English." As is his latest expression of aloofness. When asked whether the '90s art audience had finally caught up to him, he replied, "I can't answer your question because I don't think about what the world thinks of my painting. I don't care what the world thinks."

But this big show gives the viewer a lot to think about. There are plenty of those typical Balthus females (with big heads, moon--like faces and the stiffness of antique dolls). They're fully clothed, seminude, nude and--in the curiously bloodless instance of "The Victim" (1937), where there's a knife on the floor--apparently murdered. The late 1930s and the war years were Balthus's best, perhaps because the era's mix of sex and dread reflected his own artistic temperament. In those days, his paintings' internal inconsistencies of paint surface and perspective lent a nice pictorial weight to his weirdness. The rise of abstract painting in the 1950s seems, however, to have convinced Balthus that remaining stubbornly figurative was, in itself, enough to keep him a singular artist. In the monumental "Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-Andre" (1952-54), Balthus shows off a painstakingly arty version of the Model T realism found in America in bamside billboards.

The Lausanne show culminates with "The Cat at the Mirror III," a large picture Balthus worked on for three years and finished only weeks before the exhibition opened. Balthus belatedly allows--in the way the legs and the torso of the girl don't quite fit-some synthetic cubism to steal into his style. Although the color in the quirky, perky "Cat" rebounds a little in the direction of sparkle, the painting reflects Balthus's growing melancholy about painting itself. "If I were to meet a young artist today," he says, "I would tell him not to paint. It's rather useless to paint in the modern world. The world is so mechanical. It's difficult to look at things in a painterly way." Perhaps that's why this split-decision exhibition isn't quite the knockout an artist needs to retain a title like "world's greatest living painter."