Cafe de la Belle Etoile
Charles Spencer's Lecture
Circle Galleries, New York
The world of Jan Balet, as depicted in his paintings, and of which he talks with great affection, even nostalgia, is a world he never experienced himself. "My ideal world,” he told me, "is 1910 to 1920.”
But, I pointed out he was only born in 1913, and most of that period he either never knew, or can barely remember. What he is doing, in fact, is identifying a world from which he came, or wished he came, which for him symbolizes the secure elements in a somewhat disturbed childhood. This is the world, in fact, of his grandparents who brought him up from the age of four, after his parents divorced. By that time his grandfather, a judge and a writer, was retired and devoted himself to Jan. They visited museums and old towns, and Jan was able to study his grandfather's collection of paintings and objects, and especially books. The seeds were sown at this time; he too was to become an avid collector of diverse art, folk objects, and books; like his grandfather he most admired the painter Pieter Brueghel; and of fundamental importance he associated his grand-father with this period, so that European life at the turn of the century became a glamourized ideal.
The look of people, their clothes, their conveyances - bicycles and motor cars, their pursuits in the country or at the seaside, the cafes and shops they patronized, all this represented a lost world, but one totally alive to the artist, largely because, in fact, he had invented it. That sad, little boy, often depicted in his paintings, either alone, or in the midst of adults, remembered what he was told and what he was shown. In later years he supplemented memory with information, collecting photographs, books, objects of the period, even clothes, hats and false moustaches which he occasionally wears.
Despite this, it would be misleading to see Balet's charming pictures as wholly escapist; whilst the scenery and the costumes seem historic, the human characteristics and behavior portrayed are timeless. The subject is the comedie-humaine, the comic-tragic nature of life. Jan Balet himself is a great laugher, he loves humor and jokes, word-puns, stories which illustrate the comic inconsistency of human nature, the unexpected event or juxtaposition.
In a sense, he is concerned with all life, so there are indeed the symbols of romance, even tragedy. A repeated emblem is departure, of loved ones, of the dead, a theme which he knew well already as a child. He does not shrink from a harsher kind of surrealism to note the human qualities of vanity, arrogance or violence, and from his experience of Nazism and violence he pointedly criticizes blind militarism or mindless intolerance; but with wit, satire, paradox.
Jan Balet was 52 years old before he could devote himself to painting - an ambition nurtured at his grandfather's knee. He had studied at art schools in Munich and Berlin, growing up with the rise of Nazism, and eventually in 1938 called up to the German army. Determined to find a way out, with the help of friends made in America two years earlier, he used a furlough to return to the United States. A visitor's permit was obtained and he soon established himself as a free-lance illustrator, eventually becoming Art Director of prestigious magazines, contributing to leading publications, illustrating books.
A combination of events facilitated a new life; divorce from his second wife, the inheritance from his mother of a house in Munich, the city where in 1964 he held his first exhibition of paintings. The following year he left the United States to settle in Munich, holding annual exhibitions throughout Europe, winning praise and economic security as a painter. A third marriage led to a happy residence in France for 4 years, and finally, in 1978 their move to Switzerland to be near the graphic atelier where he works on his lithographs.
For twenty years now he has lived a life partly echoing that of his grandfather, as an art and book collector, a complete European in his taste and responses, and at the same time perfecting a style and technique with which he both recalls the period of his grandparents and observes the world he lives in himself.
To call Balet a naive painter is totally misleading; Jan Balet is highly trained and expert, and highly aware of what he is trying to say. He arrives at his ideas and his compositions after the most complex and diligent processes, whilst the final painting is achieved by careful, sophisticated planning. The image may be somewhat childlike, but the means, and the final statement, is the very opposite of childish. The paintings may seek the innocence of childhood, but they are not innocent in this search. With his mixture of intuition and conscious effort, Jan Balet has arrived at a balance and a mixture which perfectly suits his purpose, and which he perfectly carries out.
Mr. Spencer, the noted art historian, is the former art critic for The New York Times European edition and author of the comprehensive book Erte, A Decade of Printmaking, The Aesthetic Movement, Leon Bkst, and many other books. Following his recent visit to Jan Balet's studio and home in Switzerland, Mr. Spencer is compiling information for a major monograph on the artist and a series of lectures at Circle Galleries in the United States.