02 February 2020

Rosabianca Skira-Venturi: Polymath in the Art World

She was a young married woman when the artist Balthus painted Portrait of Rosabianca Skira in Paris in 1949.  The half-Jewish Balthus had fled Nazi-occupied France for Switzerland where he met  Skira  in 1946.  In an interview with Sabine Rewald, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mme Skira-Venturi recalled that the portrait was completed in just a few sessions and that the red coat she wore was actually the artist's bathrobe. The portrait has a trompe l'oiel painted frame on which the sitter's arm rests. She appears self-protective, with her arms folded and her gaze averted from the viewer - and the artist. She is posed in three quarter view, the same pose of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.  I make that comparison because Rosabianca similarly has a long nose and heart-shaped mouth with a pronounced cupid's bow.  I am left wondering what Rosabianca Skira made of Balthus' exploitative paintings of young girls.   As this portrait makes apparent, in Rosabianca Skira he had to take the measure of an equal.

Rosabianca Skira grew up in a home surrounded by art.  She was the daughter of Italian art historian Lionello Venturi and sister of Franco Venturi, also an art historian.  When Lionello Venturi refued to swear allegiance to Mussolini's dictatorship, he left his university professorship and moved the family to Paris. Rosabianca  married Swiss publisher Albert Skira, and worked at Skira Editions in Geneva as  author, translator, and editor.  Albert had founded the international art press Editions Skira in 1928 and it became renowned for the high quality of its color reproductions.

When Albert unexpectedly died in 1973, Rosabianca took over as publisher but eventually sold the family business to Flammarion of Paris.  Under the name Rosabianca Skira-Venturi she wrote several art books for children, notably the series of Weekend books...with Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and also co-authored Italian Painting: The Creators of the Renaissance, with her father, published by Skira in 1952.

Balthus, born Balthazar Klossowski de Rola in Paris, grew up in three countries.   Intellectuals like Rilke, Gide, and Cocteau were frequent visitors during his childhood.  As an adult Balthus befriended avant-garde artists including Picasso and Alberto Giacometti.  His debut as an artist was a book of drawings with a preface by Rilke that was published in 1921.  An enigmatic character, he fabricated more than his name, creating a life story that was more story than anything else.  Essentially self-taught, Balthus became a great figurative painter and a controversial one for his erotically charged pictures of young girls.  His "school" was the Louvre where he learned the techniques of the old masters, especially fresco painters of the early Renaissance.  From them he learned to use the matte surfaces and muted colors we see in Portrait of Rosabianca Skira.

For further reading:  Albert Skira et ses livres d'art by Corisande Evesque.

Image: Balthus - Portrait of Rosabianca Skira, 1949, on on board, Barry Friedman Collection, NYC.


Tania said...

Skira, a great name for art publishing, well present in my library. An interesting post, thank you, Jane.

Jane said...

Tania, there are some lovely Skira books at the public library here, including one on Persian Art. Their color reproductions are outstanding.
I read that Skira commissioned illustrations from Picasso but haven't been able to track down the books - yet! But maybe someone who reads this article will know.