Not very long ago, no English-language publisher would have wanted to consider a comprehensive survey of the life and work of a French painter known simply as Balthus. Balthus was widely regarded as an up-market near-pornographer who painted teenage young women in provocative attitudes and states that bordered on indecency.
“Awfully sorry,” they would say, “but we couldn’t touch it.” On that note, the aspirant biographer was shown the door.
That was just fine with Balthus. He had a horror of being written about. When he made his American debut in New York in 1938 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, he said, “If there is any one thing that I hate more than anything else in the world, it is an exhibition preface.” The problem recurred when Balthus had a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the winter of 1956-1957. James Thrall Soby was in charge of the catalog. He was on record as believing that Balthus’s The Street, which he had lost no time in buying, was as great a landmark in the history of French painting as Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.
Soby was delightful company and very much persona grata at the Museum of Modern Art. He could not be prevented from writing for the catalog. “But,” Balthus wrote, “I beg him to leave out all the biographical details that are so much in fashion today. Ancestry, parentage, mode of life, etc.—all that seems to me completely superfluous. Just tell the public that I was born in Paris, and that I am forty-six years old. That should be quite enough.” (As a matter of fact he was going on forty-nine, but he thought that that, too, was nobody’s business.)
By 1968 Balthus had, if anything, hardened his position. When his exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London was all ready to go, he asked the organizer to remove all biographical matter from the catalog. “Just say,” he said, “that ‘Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us have a look at his paintings.”’
That sentence has often been referred to as if it were some kind of landmark, or even as a historic breakdown, in the artist/curator relationship. As the organizer in question, I never saw it in that light. This was Balthus’s big day in London, even if he never came to the show. His family history was his own business. If he preferred me to confine myself to what he generously described as my “always pertinent” comments on his work, I had no complaint. Matters of “ancestry, parentage, mode of life, etc.” could be left to an eventual biographer. But what eventual biographer? An “authorized life of Balthus” was a contradiction in terms.
That was back then. The big books on Balthus took forever to be researched, written, and published. After more than thirty years, two candidates have at last reached the bookstores. The first is a 644-page biography by an American cultural historian, Nicholas Fox Weber. Initially, and contrary to all expectation, this had been given a cordial go-ahead from Balthus himself.
Nicholas Fox Weber was quite unknown to Balthus when he called him from Connecticut, unannounced and out of the blue, and said that he wanted to write a book about him. Balthus himself answered the telephone. Where an unknown caller might normally have got a stylish equivalent of the bum’s rush, Weber sounded like what he is—a model of courtesy—and he was at once made welcome. (It may have helped that November is a very slow month in the part of Switzerland where Balthus lives.) Balthus wanted to talk only in English. He had had a Scottish nanny, he said, and English was his first language.
To be exact, Weber’s book is not “a biography” of the kind that trudges from week to week. The author remembers what Mark Twain once said—that “biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” What we get to read is the record of a blameless, one-sided, non-sexual love affair between biographer and artist which blossomed, cooled, and redeveloped with time into a lingering fascination. Much of it has also the character of a traditional conversazione in which people of every age and stripe pipe up and have their say. Weber made it his business to speak to everyone who might have something to say about Balthus.
Partly for this reason, his book has a curious, rambling, many-faceted quality. As he says, there is a moment in almost every biographer’s experience when he falls in love with his subject. In the initial phase of the Balthus/Weber conversations, this was almost bound to occur. Balthus made him welcome in a way that made Weber feel that he was already a friend from whom nothing would be kept back. He was encouraged to take notes even at mealtimes. No subject was taboo.
The friendship flourished, and in January 1991 Weber came back to Switzerland as a house guest of Balthus and his wife. Balthus and Weber talked, Weber tells us, “morning, noon, and night for ten days.” Note-taking was mandatory. It seemed, as Weber says, “an ideal situation.” The book thereafter is in part the story of how that ideal situation unraveled. There were some who said that Balthus was ultimately loyal to no one. It was also disconcerting to Weber that Balthus never hesitated to tamper with the facts if it would be to his advantage. Disappointment bordered on outrage. And yet, toward the end, Balthus reemerged as someone who was infinitely worth knowing.
Weber not only tried to meet everyone who might have something important to say about Balthus and his work, but traveled sometimes widely and sometimes almost next door, from Claus von Bülow in London to Linda Fairstein, the present chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, who was asked to comment on the condition of some of the bodies in Balthus’s paintings. Weber also reports that “the erudite and sharp-focused von Bülow proved to be among the most acute and original firsthand observers of Balthus I have ever encountered.” He mentions von Bülow’s speculation about the appeal for Balthus of his friendship with a Roman grandee: “a certain voyeurism—of both the prestigious family and the sexual prowess.”
But by the time Weber went to France, many key witnesses had died. Among them were Alberto Giacometti, of whom Balthus always spoke in a worshipful way, Albert Camus, with whom Balthus had worked in the theater, Paul Éluard, who had written a poem for him, and André Malraux, the architect of Balthus’s almost ambassadorial status in later life. But many others were still living, and not all of them would collaborate.
Balthus’s brother, Pierre, refused to see Weber (to think about his brother gave him migraines, he said). There is no sign that Balthus’s longtime favorites, Frédérique Tison and Laurence Bataille, were accessible. Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud had worked with him in the theater, as had many others, but they do not seem to have made any contribution to the book. The Paris of the 1990s was one that Balthus did not know (and would not have liked).
Other friends (and especially those who had sat for Balthus) were ready to talk. But the talk often slithered sideways into gossip. Was Balthus really the Comte de Rola, the Polish title on which he insisted? Many people get excited about that. It is a point on which many a friendship has been broken, and many another reinforced. I myself applaud the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who had often entertained Balthus at his house on the Place des États-Unis in Paris. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It gives him so much pleasure.” It has also been pointed out that no one seems to have laughed at Casanova when he chose a few letters from the alphabet, put them together, and said, “Now I am Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt!”
Balthus himself had told Pierre Matisse in 1956 that the Rola Klossowskis were an ancient Polish family, of which the male members had the rank of count. The Rola coat of arms had been created in 1044 on the occasion of a family marriage. In the 1950s, eighty families—none of them related—had the right to bear that coat of arms. Balthus once said that Rola meant “glebe”—church land—and Klossowski meant an ear of corn.
These meanings did not engage the interest of Balthus’s first wife, Antoinette de Watteville, from whom he had long been amicably separated. “Of course, it’s absolute nonsense,” she said to me over lunch at her house in Switzerland. “But we lived here, and it’s called Rolle. So why shouldn’t he be the Comte de Rola? It sounds just right.”
Gossip also fed on the question of whether or not Balthus had Jewish blood, and did not like to admit it. This was a more telling notion, in that his mother, born Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, was the daughter of a well-known and highly gifted cantor in Wroclaw (now Breslau). Since Nicholas Fox Weber also has Jewish forebears in Breslau, he saw no harm in saying to Balthus: here we are, two Jews from Breslau, sitting side by side in Switzerland. After a moment or two, Balthus said, “No, that is wrong, Mr. Weber.” “Behind his ‘it really doesn’t matter’ tone of voice,” Weber says, “there was an underlying vehemence.”
There was also the question of his mother. “Baladine,” as she was universally known, had been the mistress of Rainer Maria Rilke. Balthus had certainly witnessed the distress that the decline and end of this relationship had caused her. He had also endured poverty from 1921 to 1924 in Berlin. Rilke could have saved them both from that ordeal. To a friend, Rilke wrote, “I had a ghastly feeling that I was letting someone I loved fall into the abyss. That is what Berlin must mean to poor Balthus’s mother—for many reasons: a bottomless abyss, and one in which she will be continually pushed down deeper and deeper!” That said, Rilke closed to her the door of Muzot, the house she had put into shape for him in Switzerland, and went on with his “Duino Elegies,” undisturbed.
In later years, in Paris, Baladine did not lack for friends. She was well built and outgoing, with a broad, generous face and fine, full lips. People loved to go to her apartment on the rue Malebranche, where she was a source of irresistible animation. The French critic Jean Clair reminds us of a comment made in the 1920s by Jean Cassou, a lifelong connoisseur of the Parisian intellectual scene:
Baladine’s salon was the last headquarters of a society of true spirits. We spent some astonishing evenings in her studio…. There was a charge of cosmopolitan electricity in the air. There were Germans, side by side with delightful and mysterious Austrian women, and Rilke, of course, and Groethuysen and Charles du Bos, and Pierre-Jean Jouve, and Baladine’s two boys…