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The King of the Cats’

Balthus

by Nicholas Fox Weber
Knopf, 644 pp., $40.00

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…

This was distinctly the honor roll of a certain Paris, with Baladine as its animatrix. But it was not a Paris that Balthus coveted.

Weber’s biography was followed closely by the long-awaited and monumental 576-page Balthus: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works by Virginie Monnier and Jean Clair. This documents and illustrates more than two thousand works, both large and small. Many were previously unknown. This majestic book has the words “with the authorization of Balthus” on the title page. This was to be expected since Jean Clair, the director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, has been writing on Balthus since 1966. He also organized in 1983 the major Balthus retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. His lengthy essay, “The Hundred-Year Sleep,” in the catalogue raisonné is rich in unfamiliar ideas, fished up from all over.

In the Picasso Museum Jean Clair has charge of Balthus’s The Blanchard Children (1937; see illustration on page 10), which Picasso bought in 1941 and bequeathed to the Louvre. This is how Jean Clair sees the painting:

[The two children] have just returned from school, a satchel has been thrown under the table and the boy has not yet taken time to undo his plaited leather belt or to remove his gray smock; his sister is already down on all fours, absorbed in a book and he, resting his chin on his hand, is already lost in his dreams. From floor to ceiling, all of space is theirs, and with it, the possession of time.

Reading, as portrayed in this picture, is neither a task nor a chore. It is what Clair calls “the weightless time of the free and agile soul, capable of elevation, like a free flight, in an absent-minded sort of reading, a floating, almost negligent attention which, because it merely brushes up against things, allows one to catch their scent without destroying what contains it.”

This is one of the relatively rare occasions on which Jean Clair and Nicholas Fox Weber are in complete accord. Weber says, among much else, that

Thérèse and Hubert have solid, earthly bodies; their poses make them seem even stronger. Thérèse stretches out her gangly, nubile frame and arches it mightily. She places her limbs as only a child might—flattening her lower leg, bending her foot, and twisting her arms in a way that tenses her body like a coiled spring. It looks unnatural, yet children are sometimes endowed with this flexibility. Thérèse’s hands offset one another across a void so that, in addition to supporting her, they impart a certain bounce—and help give her élan.

Balthus in late boyhood was so sensitive to that particular stage in life. When he was fourteen, Balthus said he would like to remain a child forever. It was in painting, for many years to come, that he could replay a period in life in which everything was beginning and nothing had as yet been degraded or dirtied.

The fearless and wholly defensible specificity of many of the images that resulted still gets Balthus into trouble. About such misunderstandings, he seems to say, this is what young people are like. They are dealing with what may well be the most important phase of their whole lives. They have their own ways of dealing with it. If painting is about truth, and not about received opinions, why should we begrudge them an inch of their underclothes, or even an occasional glimpse of their genitalia? They think nothing of such things. Who are we to pounce upon them?

Meanwhile, to pore over the catalogue raisonné is to realize anew the scope, the energy, and the constantly varying direction of Balthus’s ambitions. To include every single surviving scrap of his oeuvre is an act of candor from which most painters would emerge diminished. Balthus had his off days, like everyone else. But the cumulative effect is to keep the reader eager and alert throughout the 349 paintings, the 1,448 reproduced drawings, the eighty pages of drawings from sketchbooks, the forty drawings for the book called Mitsou (published when Balthus was only thirteen, with a preface in French by Rilke), and the forty-one drawings for Wuthering Heights (1933-1935).

Among the Parisian theatrical adventures that counted for much in their day were Balthus’s décors and costumes for an adaptation of Shelley’s The Cenci in 1935. Antonin Artaud both directed the production and played the principal role. Nineteen sketches for The Cenci are in the catalog, as are more than fifty-nine for a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Aix-en-Provence in 1950. As for his drawing of Puss in Boots—for the program of a ballet by Roland Petit—Balthus, the self-styled “King of the Cats,” was never in more genial form.

To have all this in one big book is the more valuable in that the greater part of Balthus’s output can now be seen only in ones and twos, and not often as easily as that. Fenced off behind the words “private collection,” they lead a reclusive life. The catalogue raisonné is particularly useful for that reason, although present owners are not often named.

But of course people don’t only want to see his work. Many would rather gossip about Balthus himself than unriddle a huge painting like The Mountain of 1937, which measures eight by twelve feet. In The Mountain a still-unspoiled Swiss upland scene is marvelously rendered. It is populated by Balthus himself, by his future wife, Antoinette de Watteville, and by a handful of their friends. As in amateur theatricals, and with an evident delight, they act out one version or another of the pleasure of being on pristine high ground on a perfect day. The Swiss village of Beatenberg, which Balthus knew so well, was not yet touched by the tourist industry.

It is to my eye a blissful image, and one that fits perfectly with some lines by Rilke: “We should think back often to the interminable afternoons of childhood, remembering a whole world lost and gone. Time passes. Why can those afternoons not return?”

The Mountain, with its profusion of play-acting, is the epitome of what Rilke had to say. But not everyone agrees. In his biography, Weber says of The Mountain that

the group assembled for a supposedly playful outing seem half dead. They are self-absorbed to the point of being totally out of reach. Forever fixed in a life that Balthus knew to be imperiled, they do not savor it easily.

(Readers who wish to form their own opinion about this redoubtable painting can find it through December 31 of this year in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Painters in Paris: 1895-1950.”)

Jean Clair and Virginie Monnier have for years been authorities on Balthus, about whom Jean Clair has had unique opportunities to acquire knowledge. Who but he might have known, for instance, of the letter (now in the Picasso Museum) that Balthus wrote to Picasso in October 1956. “I always think [of you],” he said, “with happiness and amazement, and a deep gratitude too that you should be there, you, the Great River of nourishing and exterminating fire, the Father of this century!”

Weber, for his part, traveled in Europe and in the United States to see as many as possible of Balthus’s paintings at first hand. This was not always easy, but he succeeded, for instance, in seeing The Guitar Lesson (1934; see illustration on page 8), one of Balthus’s more startling achievements, where many another eager pilgrim has failed. (The picture hung in the New York apartment of Stavros Niarchos. Weber was left alone to sit and look at it for as long as he liked.) As is widely known, it shows an older woman giving pleasure (or conceivably pain) to an adolescent young woman who is laid across her knees. Fingering is, after all, fundamental to every guitar lesson.

This left Weber with very mixed feelings. “The violation of a girl close in years to my own daughters was heinous,” he says. “But the effects of Balthus’s virtuosity had left me no room for escape.” After long scrutiny he decided that the torturer was actually a self-portrait of Balthus in drag.

In the book by Weber and the catalogue raisonné we have, on the one hand, a superabundance of hearsay and, on the other, every surviving scrap of Balthus’s output, ordered and annotated. Yet he remains a painter on whom the last word has yet to be said. Linda Fairstein, the Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor, gave Weber on many occasions the benefit of her specialized professional knowledge. When shown a photograph of the naked and apparently unconscious figure in Balthus’s La Victime (1937), she looked it over carefully and said, “She looks like a sex murder victim—exsanguinated,” i.e., drained of blood.

After 1959, when André Malraux became President de Gaulle’s minister for cultural affairs, and during the presidency of Georges Pompidou (1969-1974), Balthus took on a new rank in the officialdom of French culture. André Malraux wanted every big city in France to have new cultural centers that would be a lesson to the rest of the world. He wanted Paris to regain its old position as the place where foreign artists most wanted to live. He also wanted the hallowed but sometimes rather ramshackle institutions of French art, like the Villa Medici in Rome, to be reanimated.

In carrying out this grand design it was important to find a French painter who aroused curiosity and admiration in equal measure. There were many good painters in France, but only one who had retained in a supreme degree a fascination all his own. That painter was Balthus; Malraux had been acquainted with Balthus since 1945 and it soon became known that they were close friends. Balthus had an irresistible seductiveness, in which both mischief and an unfailing sense of social nuance had a part. The curious, snorting, half-strangled eloquence of Malraux played against the perfectly formed sentences of Balthus. The match, if there was a match, had two winners and no losers.

How to make the most of this? Balthus had somehow to be set up in grand style, with a distinctive status. Balthus always loved houses that came with their own history and a good name. He and his mother had been bone poor in Berlin and he had not forgotten it. When he lived for a while on the shores of Lake Geneva after World War II, it was not an accident that his address was the Villa Diodati, where Byron had once lived. He liked to say that he was in some way related to Byron.

Balthus could do much for France, simply by being around. He had the looks, the bearing, and the polyglot fluencies. No one ever forgot him. Nor did they forget his paintings. In every way he would make an ideal partner in one of Malraux’s schemes for a revived France. High functions amused him, and he has a great sense of history. In 1961, Malraux appointed Balthus as director of the Villa Medici, one of the most magnificent houses in Rome, its associations indisputably august. To be master of the Villa Medici had once been very grand, and it could be very grand again.

On arrival there, Balthus was appalled by the dowdy, slovenly, uncared-for, municipal look of many of its rooms. He soon put that right. He also revived the tradition of the Villa Medici as a place in which exhibitions of a high order could be offered to the public. As for himself, it was bliss for him to stop looking around for somewhere to live and to preside over a town house as fine as any in Europe.

Bliss of another kind resulted when Malraux sent Balthus to Japan on a mission in 1962. While there, he met Setsuko Ideta, whom he was to marry in 1967. She had lived happily with him at the Villa Medici and was the model from 1963 on of some of his greatest paintings, in which many years of work resulted in hallucinatory and still-cryptic images of his wife.

In 1977 Balthus left the Villa Medici and went to live, as he still does, in Switzerland. His name by then was giving off the kind of buzz that is irresistible to collectors who are confident they can outbid any rivals for Balthus’s works, which continue to puzzle them. And puzzles there are, in plenty. Balthus the painter and Balthus the man have never given up their secrets. But Jean Clair in his catalog essay has a quotation that may be apt. It was written by the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in 1828:

A woman of twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years may have more evident attraits, she may be better armed to arouse and above all to feed a passion…. But in truth, a girl between the age of sixteen and eighteen has in her face, her movements, her gait, etc. a divine something which nothing can equal.

Thus might Balthus have spoken, a hundred and sixty years later.

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