In America and mainland Europe, Balthus is widely and highly rated, yet in this country his predilection for painting little girls, often undressed, has been too easily stereotyped and too often dismissed as the devilry of a dirty old man. The breadth of his achievements - his portraits and landscapes - remains little known, largely because this work has been little seen. One has to search as far back as 1968 to find a significant showing of his paintings in London and so a new exhibition, even a small one, is very welcome.
It is a peaceful show: 16 softly drawn, soft-pencil drawings dimly lit in a womb-like room. The atmosphere is one of reverence, a reminder of the rarity of the occasion, and that there is a quality to some of these drawings that is more akin to the work of the old masters. One senses the presence of something special. The selection mixes portraits - the best of which is Buste de Gurtuso, a shadowy study, that seems barely there at all - with a few still lives and, inevitably, a number of adolescent models caught in various poses, often asleep. These are at once intimate, touchingly so, and uncomfortably voyeuristic, especially those in which clothes fall away to reveal a pubescent pudendum.
Balthus made his first little girl painting in 1934 - because, as he put it, "I was very hard up and I wanted to be known at once... the way to get known was with scandal" - and he has continued the theme ever since. These days he lives a reclusive life in Switzerland. If he'd lived in Orkney, the joke goes, he'd have been arrested long ago. This is old and familiar territory on which Balthus refuses to be drawn other than to say that "the form of a young girl interests me more than a grown-up". In a recent and very rare interview, he ascribed "the eroticism that they see in my paintings" to the looker, rather than to the painting itself.
Such coyness is in short supply at Flowers East, where over a hundred artists have responded to the gallery's invitation to make small paintings on the theme of sex. Some like Peter Howson and Jock McFadyen haven't had to deviate too far from their usual subject-matter while others such as Terry Frost and Tom Phillips have used it as an opportunity to give a sexy twist to their more familiar styles. The most surprising picture of all is a little scumbled canvas by Euan Uglow, dating from 1954, depicting a female nude with legs akimbo which is miles away from the austerity of the work which has made his name in recent years.
In 141 works, I counted 32 penises and innumerable other parts exposed in a mixture of smutty, funny, sleazy and occasionally baffling couplings. Instant notoriety such as Balthus found in 1934 is harder to come by in the 1990s and the prevailing mood at Flowers is less of shock than one of cheerful good humour. In fact it is Balthus by proxy who offers some of the more disturbing images through the hands of David Cooper, whose three contributions are all mini-copies of Balthus classics. Cooper's versions are scaled down and oddly coloured, but even without the touch of the master there is something deeply unsettling about this preoccupation with young flesh.
`Balthus', Lefevre Gallery, London W1 (0171-493 2107) to 20 Dec; `Small is Beautiful' Flowers East, London E14 (0181-985 3333) to 19 Jan