Great works: Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-André, 1952-4, by Balthus

Private collection

Here Balthus revisits a Paris street scene in St-Germain-des-Prés that would have been utterly familiar to him – he'd had a studio close by for years. He had painted a similar urbanscape almost two decades before he made this particular painting. And yet the mood here is utterly different.

There is here an atmosphere of disembodiment and even disengagement. Balthus is not so much seeing, as seeing through to an interior world of his own conjuring, which seems to run in parallel with the common world of everyday seeing, everyday memory. In that first painting, La Rue, he had familiarised us with a group of stylised individuals who, though oddly marionette-like, were still going about their daily lives of hurry and bustle. Everything was frenetic, teeming, interconnectedly clashing.

Not so here. This scene seems slowed down to the utmost. Although everything seems utterly familiar in its way – we feel that we almost recognise the rather springy step of that anonymous young man who strides away from us, brandishing his baguette – it also seems utterly unfamiliar, almost otherworldly. It possesses a patina of sightly grainy mistiness. The light looks altogether strange – grey edging off to a kind of queasy saffron. Is this a dreamscape or a cityscape?

The architecture has an air of unreality. It looks like a carefully fabricated simulacrum of itself, courtesy of cinecittà, not so much two bisecting streets as a filmset of two bisecting streets. Too many of the windows are either shuttered or closed off. We can accept shuttering, which is a very familiar sight on the streets of old Paris – perhaps they have not yet opened up for the day; it may, after all, be a little earlier than it looks, in spite of the fact that the street has enough people in attendance for us to regard it as mid-morning at the very earliest – but why are so many of these windows seemingly sealed and blanked off in this way, as if they were nothing but pretences of window spaces, nothing but architectural jokes?

And then there are the various human elements that populate the scene. I use that word with some care because I hesitate to call any of them fully realised human individuals, expect perhaps for the young man previously referred to who walks way from us, and whose face therefore is utterly unknowable. They are either less or slightly "other". Surely they are all a little too small for a start? That man seated at the curb looks positively dwarf-like. They walk or posture as if they had once played a minor part in some devotional work by the likes of, say, Masaccio.

The child and the babe at the window, with those oddly rounded heads, might be part of some sacred conversation. Except that there is nothing at all sacred about this scene. It is utterly humdrum, utterly everyday. There is light-drifting (which stands in for walking), standing, sitting, and there is also a kind of odd posing – the girl who looks towards us, chin supported by her hand, possesses an oddly rapt and inward look that we could try to describe as, well... otherworldly rapture? Or some such. Certainly set apart, certainly not a lively and fully engaged participant in a Parisian street scene.

How odd it all is, all this wafting, inward-turned joylessness. The old woman with the stick, though seemingly in motion, seems strangely sculpturally arrested in her posture, as if she might eventually find herself in that pose forever. Or perhaps she is indeed a street sculpture of an old woman shopping in a Parisian street, a kind of Duane Hanson de ces jours.

About the artist: Balthus (1908-2001)

The Swiss-Polish painter pen-named Balthus was born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola in Switzerland. His father was an art historian and his mother a painter, and he grew up amongst the cultural elite of Paris. He always resisted any attempts on the part of galleries or newspapers to create a biographical profile, and when a retrospective of his work was shown at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1968, he sent a telegram that could be summarised in this way: This artist is one about whom nothing need be known. Please look at the paintings.