‘The King of the Cats’


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…

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