January 30, 2012

Balthus' Memoir: Beautiful, and Infuriating

 Balthus, The Mountain, 1936-37; oil on canvas, 98 x 144 in. From the Metropolitan Museum website.

Of what use are an artist's words about their work? do they elucidate or obfuscate? How do they make us feel about the artist as a person and does that affect our view of the work? I remember my first encounter with van Gogh's letters and how stunned I was by his vivid, intelligent writing, so far from the popular image of the disturbed artist. While I was mulling over writing this post, I read a blog post by the artist Deborah Barlow about Philip Guston's writings and life; reading his daughter Musa Mayer's memoir left her feeling uneasy about his life. So I come to Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski), certainly one of the great 20th century painters, but one who engenders continuing controversy. When I recently wrote a blog post on originality,  using Picasso and Balthus as examples, a lively conversation about Balthus on Facebook ensued. I mentioned this to my friend, the artist Susan Jane Walp, who then loaned me her copy of Vanished Splendors, an "as told to" memoir compiled during two years at the end of Balthus' life.

 Balthus, Nude with Cat, 1949; oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. This and the following images from Wikipaintings website.

Balthus speaks beautifully about his vocation as an artist:
what painting really is, a skill like that of a laborer or farmer. It's like making a hole in the ground. A certain physical effort is needed in relation to the goal ones sets for oneself. It is a discernment of secrets and illegible, deep, and distant paths that are timeless.
He then goes on to berate modern painting, decrying Mondrian's desertion of landscape painting. He is deeply conservative, and religious, which evokes an eloquent statement:
To paint as one prays. By doing so, to accede to silence and what is invisible in the world....To join with what is essential in this sacred world through a humble, modest availability that is also presented as an offering.
After this lovely statement, he goes on to complain of the "majority of morons mak(ing) so-called contemporary art" and I fume as I read it. And what of his most controversial paintings, those of young girls in sexual poses, paintings that make us horribly uncomfortable? 

 Balthus, The Room, c. 1953; oil on canvas; 106 1/2 x 132 in. 

I remember seeing this huge canvas at the Balthus retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art many years ago. The light, the paint, are beautiful, but the image is shocking, almost violent. The girl pulling back the curtain seems evil to me as she exposes the prone girl to the light of day. These complex images of young girls, mixing seduction and grace, light and darkness, sexuality and death, with deep mystery, push Balthus' work beyond that of mere figure painting. What does he have to say about his young models?
Some have claimed that my undressed young girls are erotic. I never painted them with that intent, which would have made them anecdotal, mere objects of gossips. I aimed at precisely the opposite, to surround them with a halo of silence and depth, as if creating vertigo around them. That's why I think of them as angels, beings from elsewhere, whether heaven, or another ideal place that suddenly opened and passed through time, leaving traces of wonderment, enchantment, or just as icons. 
Is it possible he really did not see what he painted? but he also wrote this, which seems to belie his more simple statement above:
Behind nature's docile stillness and people's behavior, I've always perceived a secret, dark complexity that attracts all artists and makes them advance to the depths of forests and the abyss. This mysterious architecture gives art its vertigo.

 Balthus, Large Landscape with a Tree, 1957; oil on canvas; 51 x 64 in. 

Balthus' landscape paintings have a deeply quiet presence; a distillation of form, and a quality of paint make them timeless. They are an aspect of his work that draws no controversy.
This love of landscape remained with me always...I don't try to paint of reproduction of nature, but signs of a universal community and identification of a thought and deep meaning, at the same time coherent and obscurely mysterious. 

Balthus, Japanese Girl with a Black Mirror, 1967; oil on canvas; 59 x 77 in.

Later in his life, Balthus painted his much younger Japanese wife, Setsuko Ideta, who he calls "The Countess", much to my annoyance. How do I feel about this admittedly great artist after reading much of the memoir? I don't like him. He was extremely conservative, snobbish, arrogant, and in love with aristocracy. Does that change my view of his paintings? I don't think so, any more than knowing about the bad behavior of so many of the New York School artists changes my attitude toward their work. Can we separate the art and the life?


  1. Perhaps doesn't make sense coming from a liberal woman, but I don't have the reaction to Balthus that his women are literally erotic or make me uncomfortable. What mainly comes across to me in his art is a stark sense of mystery and isolation. From that standpoint I was very interested to read the quote you included from him about his own attitude toward his models.

    I guess it is also true that whether we want it to or not, our work as artists will take on a life of it's own, and this too is part of the creative experience.

    1. Your comment, Mona, put me in mind of my trip to the de Kooning show with a feminist friend who was completely unaware of how controversial his women paintings have been.

      It's certainly true that our work takes on a life of its own that we cannot control.

  2. You bring up some good points for consideration. I have never been much of a fan of Balthus because I always found his figures stilted, awkward in a too carefully placed and too long held poise. That's what made me more uncomfortable. I think the art does reveal the life.
    Thanks always for your thought provoking posts.

    1. You're welcome, Maggie, glad to be thought provoking.

  3. Purveyor's of beauty in order to protect themselves for the ugliness of the opinions of others need to remain extremely conservative, snobbish, arrogant, and in love with aristocracy.

    1. well, Tom, I think van Gogh was a purveyor of beauty also and he was none of those things.

  4. Thanks for the interesting take on this artwork. I don't think you can separate the art from the artist. His work is going to be a reflection of him and his thoughts - or at least a manifestation of his thoughts in some capacity - but whether by mere catalist or by thorough execution, his mind *has* to be what brought the concept to canvas. Therefore, if he's snobbish, arrogant or not within alignment of any of your values, his art is accordingly irrelevant to your life. Any relevance you draw from it outside that paradigm is completely fabricated in your own personal mind.

  5. Altoon -- I think it is sometimes easy to separate the work of an artist from the personality/life of that artist. In the case of the visual artist, our physical vision tends to be “knee-jerk”. It’s quite possible to be shown a painting that takes one aback, striking us with a wonderment and awe which is a physical sensation, and then discover it is by someone we know to be knavish. Our reaction is clearly a true one and completely divorced from whatever knowledge we may have about the artist. This discovery may be a let-down, but, if we are honest, we cannot deny the truth of that initial reaction. If, however, the artist (one with a “bad” personality) actually paints images which directly connect with the artist’s personality, we likely will not have a problem; we can easily consider technique while we dismiss the subject.

    Of course then we might well go on to wrestle with the idea of “bad” people doing “good” things. Is this an anomaly or an oxymoron?

    I recently read a book by Paul Johnson called “The Intellectuals”, which must be high on the list of those in the anti-intellectual camp. It takes a selection of influential intellectuals and delves into their personal lives. Of course, the group was clearly selected to show the disparity between their ideas and their behavior. Its unstated aim is obviously to “prove” that one should not listen to intellectuals because they are bad people. However, it really doesn’t matter because the words (as do paintings) live on after the death of the creator. The “bad” personality is no more, and we have only the vision. We can like it or not.
    Many will stumble across the works, many fewer will delve into the lives behind the works.

    1. Clair, thanks for addressing this issue with thoughtfulness and complexity. For me it is a conundrum and one I will not solve.

  6. Really what it comes down to, there exist, (or existed) very,very few painters who can (could) paint as beautifully as Balthus. His paintings are magic.He synthesized a number of influences, from Piero to Manet and came up with an amazing style, never duplicated, and his painted surface is so sensuous and beautiful it is a true act of genius. He is Old School, a shame almost no artists exist today who can do what he did. But then again,very few could do it in his time and before that as well.
    John MacWhinnie

    1. I think Balthus' paintings are beautiful, so I don't argue with your assessment, but this post was about something else. For me he is a complicated figure, and his works are not simply about that beauty, which is one reason they are so compelling.