Like a Prayer

The Naked Ambition of Balthus

Illustration by Mark DanceyBalthus knew how to arouse suspicion. Born in 1908 as Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, he specialized in portraits of newly pubescent girls in classic porn poses: crawling, bending, stretching or, most often, sitting cluelessly with legs splayed. In his most provocative painting, The Guitar Lesson (1934), a woman sadistically stretches a half-naked girl across her lap, yanking her hair with one hand and fingering her crotch with the other (the guitar has fallen to the side).

If paintings were admissible as evidence, Balthus would surely be convicted of something. Maybe that's why Vanished Splendors, the artist's posthumous memoirs, sounds so defensive. Throughout, the notoriously reclusive painter defends his reputation, fends off any suggestion of impropriety, and rejects the notion of art as autobiography. At every turn, he glorifies his own life and work.

Balthus began the project in 1999, just two years before his death, during a kind of personal glasnost. For decades, the artist had been so secretive that Robert Hughes once noted that he "has no public face." That changed in his final years. He began granting interviews to journalists, talked at length to Nicholas Fox Weber for his recent biography, and even invited the select few (somehow Bono and Sharon Stone made the cut) to his Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland.

His memoirs were part of this last-minute attempt to forge a public persona. Almost 90 years old and nearly blind, Balthus let Alain Vircondelet record his thoughts, more than a hundred reflections in all. The topics included his charmed childhood in Paris, his love of young girls in all their innocence, his love of cats and their "untamed grace," the rigors of classical Chinese painting, the mysticism of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the great achievements of Picasso and Giacometti, and the otherwise abundant failures of modern art. Vanished Splendors offers some elegant meditations on the relationship between art and the infinite.


Illustration by Mark Dancey

Balthus on Rilke is particularly powerful—and not just because they share a certain post-Romantic sensibility. During World War I, when Balthus was a teenager living in Switzerland, his mother separated from his father and began a torrid affair with Rilke. Imagine your mom taking a lover; imagine he's the greatest love poet of the age! Not only did Rilke help Balthus publish his first series of drawings—a book about his lost cat, Mitsou—but the poet also fed the painter's fantasies of being an artistic genius. Rilke also helped give Balthus the confidence—or arrogance—to question the tenets of modern art. Most of us still see the rise of abstract painting as a rather natural evolution, with Mondrian as the textbook example: early on, Mondrian painted realistic trees; soon, the forests grew geometric; ultimately (and fortunately, the thinking goes), they went totally abstract, in the form of his popular grids. But Balthus makes it clear that he prefers Mondrian's early trees. He chastises abstract artists for losing touch with their true subject—the mysteries of nature and profundity of human nature.

If only Balthus were half as critical of himself. When discussing his own habits of mind and dress, art and artifice, the painter sounds smug and controlling. The undisputed master of the Grand Chalet, he insists on tea at the same time every day. He insists that his Japanese wife, Setsuko, who grew up in Western clothes, wear a kimono. And he tries to control interpretations of his work, insisting that his paintings are not sexual. Rather, professing to be an ardent Catholic, he compares painting to prayer—both offering direct access to God. But the real leap of faith occurs when he describes the girls who sit for him as his angels. "I've always had," he writes, "a naive, natural complicity with young girls, like Natalie de Noailles, Michelina, Katia, Sabine, Frédérique and, more recently, Anna. Spiritual risks occur during long posing sessions. Making the spirit surge forth in a sweet and innocent mind, something not yet realized, that dates to the beginning of time and must be preserved at all costs."

So that's what happened during the long posing sessions with Frédérique, the niece who ran Balthus' household until edged out by his second wife? That's the biggest sin Balthus committed—making the spirit surge forth? Even more incredibly, the artist dismisses all critics who say his work is erotic: "I sought to paint what was beautiful: cats, landscapes, the soil, fruits, flowers and, of course, my dear angels, who are like idealized reflections, godly Platonists. Some biographers and art critics will surely claim (some already have!) that my models are erotically posed, thereby soiling the innocent work I tried to do, in my search for eternity. . . . This only proves they understand nothing about my work."

These denials, littered throughout the book, are hard to stomach and almost impossible to reconcile with the portrait of Balthus that emerges from other sources. In Nicholas Fox Weber's biography, which reads like an inventory of the artist's public and private evasions, women who posed for Balthus complain of his "tyrannical" Jekyll and Hyde behavior. We also learn that one of his girls, Lena, "tried to kill herself in response to the ascendancy of Frédérique."

Such ugliness, though, never rears its head in Vanished Splendors. Through some combination of great talent and good fortune, Balthus devoted a long life not to curbing but to cultivating his eccentricities, and he evidently managed to do so up till the very end. He romanticizes even his stubbornness, calling himself childlike. Make that childish.

Vanished Splendors by Balthus with Alain Vircondelet; Ecco Press. Hardcover, 272 pages, $30.

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