“The seriousness with which some people carry out their tasks which are actually nonsense – this amuses me, and I try to reflect it in my paintings.”
Jan Balet as quoted in Rheinische Post, Dusseldorf, September 2, 1978
Jan Balet (1913-2009) was born in Bremen, Germany and spent the first years of his life on the northeastern shore of Lake Constance. His schooling began there and, as a result of his more-than-mischievous conduct, continued somewhat tempestuously, until he eventually focused his efforts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Under Professor Olaf Gulbransson, he developed his artistic skills and found ways to think about and express his unique vision. The composition required for advertising and the reduction of details necessary for illustrating stories became his forte. Balet learned to create concise scenes depicting his own creative narratives, full of ironic wit and engaging paradox.
In 1938, he made the decision to leave his brief service in the German army by obtaining a short-term visa, allowing him to follow his friend, Fritz Wallach, to the United States. Although he had to cease all contact with his family at home to protect them from military reprisals, Jan stayed in the U.S. in protest of the military's anti-Semitism. During his more than 25 years there, spent mostly in New York City, Jan developed a very successful commercial art career, designing for major companies and eventually going out on his own as a commercial illustrator. His years in New York also saw Jan’s ventures into the world of children’s books, both as author and illustrator. During this time, he enjoyed ongoing exposure to both classical and contemporary artists’ works, had the opportunity to travel, and took an interest in American folk art, amassing a significant collection of his own.
To help fund his 1965 return to Germany, Jan sold this folk art collection. Once in his homeland, he turned his energy to painting and print-making. Thus began his second successful career. As an artist, Jan established a solid reputation that resulted in exhibitions and sales of his work throughout Europe. He lived in Munich for a time and then in France before finally settling in Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life.
Jan Balet’s art is both an expression of delight and an invitation to consider something deeper and more meaningful about our inner world, our private relationships, and the society in which we live. His images often allude to the era 1910-30: family and wedding portraits of the period, fashions and vehicles of the time, local shops, and homes of yesteryear. Other references in his art are mythological, historical, literary, even at times, recognizably very personal. In all of his subject matter, however, he rarely portrays a face that can be specifically identified. Rather, he makes use of his unique, general type - representing anyone and everyone. His emphasis on social engagement, intimate relationships, and also on isolated states of mind make his works universally recognizable.
It is clear throughout his artistic career that Balet both understood and incorporated the insights of a wide range of significant artists and art movements. Evident is his interest in Primitive art forms and subjects, Northern Renaissance painters, German New Objectivity, and contemporary European art. More subtly, Jan’s works often reference classic literature, as well as the scenes and cultures he observed throughout his extensive travels. But it was from the art that he absorbed the foundation for his formal reduction, his use of gesture and expression, his technique and compositional interest, and his sense of momentary visions, and passing fancy and fantasy.
Balet created image after image, year after year. His superior draftsmanship and formal artistic methods created an art that engages viewers on various levels of artistic interest, while enticing them to look closer for the intriguing underpinnings of the social and psychological. His art continues to delight and challenge us today.