Derain, Balthus, Giacometti

The Derain, Balthus, Giacometti exhibition, which will be on show at Fundación MAPFRE’s Recoletos Hall from February 2 to May 6, 2018, explores the friendship between three great 20th-century artists: André Derain (1880-1954), Balthus (1908- 2001) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966).


The visions of these three artists, never before contrasted, coincide in what must be demanded of a work of art. The three share a powerful yearning for modernity, yet are passionately interested in painting’s history and the art of distant civilizations. They are fascinated by “the dark forces of matter” (Derain) and, in general, pay close attention to the “wonderful, unknown” reality before their eyes (Giacometti). Far beyond the mutual admiration and sincere affection that bonded them throughout their lives, their profound agreement on aesthetic questions is the common thread running through this exhibition.

The exhibition, which was conceived by the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art and coorganized with Fundación MAPFRE, is curated by Jacqueline Munck, head curator at the Paris museum, where its run from June 2 to October 29, 2017 proved hugely successful. The exhibition includes an exceptional selection of more than 200 works (paintings, sculptures, works on paper and photographs), focusing principally on the period between the 1930s and 1960s. The three artists met in the early 1930s as they all moved in Surrealist circles and, more specifically, they coincided at Balthus’ first exhibition at the Pierre Loeb gallery in 1934. Their friendship grew stronger from 1935 onward and their lives and works became ever more intensely intertwined. Moving between Saint-Germain and Montparnasse, they crossed the paths of many artists, writers and poets: first of all Antonin Artaud, but also Max Jacob, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau, Pierre Reverdy, Jean Oberlé, Robert Desnos, Albert Camus, Pierre-Jean Jouve, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux. The theater also figured prominently and they undertook several projects with Marc Allégret, Boris Kochno, Roger Blin and Jean-Louis Barrault; they also shared an interest in fashion, working with Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret and Christian Dior, and in the art market, collaborating with Pierre Loeb, Pierre Colle and Pierre Matisse.

Far beyond the mutual admiration and sincere affection that bonded them throughout their lives, their profound agreement on aesthetic questions is the common thread running through this exhibition

Six sections testify to this exceptional friendship between the three artists. The exhibition begins with their shared views on the figurative tradition and primitivism, from which some unique hybridizations arose (The Cultural Gaze). It continues with their landscapes, figures and still lifes, which investigate codes of representation, from Neoclassicism through to Corot and Courbet (Silent Lives). There then follow portraits of the friends and models they had in common (The Models). An Intermission introduces us into the entertainment world, where the painters also become librettists and set designers. Giacometti opens up a dreamlike world in the section Dreams – Visions of the Unknown, in which Balthus and Derain updated the theme of the sleeping female and reverie, on the frontier between fantasy and actual life. Finally, in The Mark of Darkness, the three artists examine “the possibilities of reality” in contrast to the tragedy of time.

1. The Cultural Gaze

Throughout their lives, Derain, Balthus and Giacometti turned their sights on the artistic past. André Derain underwent a major conversion in 1906, when he visited the National Gallery and British Museum in London, discovering with wonderment the works of the “whole world”. From then on, the renewal of his art was based on depicting an authentic multicultural humanism, as revealed by the unpublished hybrid works Le Joueur de cornemuse [The Bagpiper] and the Portrait d’Iturrino [Portrait of Iturrino].

In the case of Alberto Giacometti, his copies of the Italian masters and Egyptian/African statuary fully reflected his way of seeing and transposing those works that impressed him. He also allowed the multiple influences on his sculptures to manifest themselves freely — Femme qui marche [Woman Walking]. Balthus saw to it that the original impact of Arezzo, where he copied the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in 1926, resonated in his personal universe. The mysterious “figure” of these compositions, the transparency of their colors and the timeless quality all proclaimed a new credo: “true modernity lies in this reinvention of the past.”

2. Silent Lives

When Derain, Balthus and Giacometti examined landscapes, objects and figures, they intensified their physical presence through the “magic of gravity”. The complete break with reality, an essential element of Giacometti’s art, is reflected in works ranging from Le Lac de Sils [Sils Lake] to Nature morte avec une pomme [Still Life with an Apple]. The artist produces a painting with a highly particular graphic style, fruit of visual examination: “What I strive to do is reproduce on a canvas, or with clay, exactly what I see.”

Derain and Balthus remind us of the 17thcentury “painters of reality”, with their harmonious arrangement of objects and figures set against dark backgrounds, subtle treatment of light and their precision of execution. In his Vue de Saint-Maximin [View of Saint-Maximin], Derain conveys a melancholic vision of the landscape, revealing a reality “augmented” by his imagination. The Balthus still lifes add a narrative dimension, full of suspense and latent violence.

3. The Models

A series of reciprocal portraits brings together the friends and patrons the three artists have in common. In 1935, Isabel Rawsthorne posed several times for Derain and, from 1936, for Giacometti. La Nièce du peintre [The Painter’s Niece] by Derain bears a disturbing resemblance to the adolescents of Balthus and the nudes of both — Derain, Nu au chat [Nude Female Near the Cat] and Balthus, Jeune fille à la chemise blanche [Young Girl in a White Shirt] — seem to link into a “mysterious tradition” (Antonin Artaud). The Nu assis à la draperie verte [Nude Woman in Front of Green Hanging] by Derain, with its serious, austere simplicity, is set against a plain background. La Chambre [The Room] by Balthus turns us into spectators behind a two-way mirror, watching a theatrical rehearsal reminiscent of childhood role-playing games.

Cuando Derain, Balthus y Giacometti examinan los paisajes, las cosas y las figuras, intensifican su presencia física recurriendo a la «magia de la pesadez»

4. Intermission

From a decade of prolific theatrical creation, namely the 1930s, several productions have been selected for which Derain was responsible for the sets, costume designs and sometimes the libretto. This clearly shows the close relationship between the stage (theater and ballet) and the art world. An important selection of works recalls the friendship between Antonin Artaud, André Derain and Balthus, who created the sets and costumes for Les Cenci, the first play of Artaud’s “theater of cruelty”. The same sense of chaos reigns in the sets for this play and for Albert Camus’ L’État de siège [The State of Siege] (1948), both the work of Balthus.

The expressive richness of Derain’s carved masks and costume masks, some in the studio and others on the stage, is reminiscent of the origins of classical theater, while Giacometti’s “cages” define the stage space where the figures are to be placed. Theatrical collaborations abounded in the 1950s and 1960s, most noteworthy being those at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. On the recommendation of the painter and graphic designer Cassandre, Balthus was chosen to design the sets for Mozart’s Così fan tutte in 1950. The following year, Cassandre and Edmonde Charles-Roux persuaded Derain to do the set and costume designs for L’Enlèvement au sérail. The painter returns to Aix in 1953 to design the sets for The Barber of Seville by Rossini, his last theatrical production. Jean- Louis Barrault, a friend of both Derain and Balthus, suggested the latter should design the sets for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a play he directed in 1960. In 1961 he turned to Giacometti for the minimalist set – a solitary tree – for Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

5. Dreams – Visions of the Unknown

The works brought together here combine the classic theme of the reclining woman with the reverie theme, in a synthesis of tradition and modernity. The young girls painted, figures either asleep or dreaming – Derain’s Nu au chat; Balthus’, Jeune fille endormie [Young Girl Asleep] – languid or even ecstatic; Balthus’ Les Beaux Jours [Happy Days] – are indolently subjected to the spectator’s gaze. Inner life is vividly expressed in the dark backgrounds and such remarkable lighting — Derain, Grand nu [Great Nude]; Balthus, Nu couché [Reclining Nude] – which afford an air of confidence to the scenes depicted. In Balthus’ work, the theme of dreams takes reality into the realm of the imagination, whereas, in Giacometti’s work, the ideogram sculpture epitomizes the curves of the female figure and the softness of a barely discovered landscape.

6. The Mark of Darkness

The sculptures and paintings on display in this section, with their conflicting influences, offer an insight into the complex relationship between all three – Derain, Balthus and Giacometti – and reality. L’Objet invisible [The Invisible Object] (1934) by Giacometti, which signifies a total vacuum and the inability to grasp what is real, heralded the artist’s future conflicts: despite the failures — Tête noire (Tête de Diego) [Black Head (Head of Diego)] — he never ceased striving to grasp it — Annette assise, deux fois [Annette Seated, twice]. From the dawn of creation to the torments of history, anguish and destruction likewise haunt Derain’s later works: those terrified bacchantes striving to escape — Les Bacchantes [Orgiastic Women], Grande bacchanale noire [Great Black Bacchanal]. Derain depicted light permeating the darkness — Nature morte sur fond noir [Still Life on Black Background], La Clairière [The Clearing] — as did Balthus — Les Poissons rouges [The Red Fish]. In the end, light prevails in the works of Balthus, bathed in warm tones —Le Baigneur [The Bather].


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