THERE IS a special aura to the artist who rejects celebrity. In our age of media saturation, we are fascinated by those who do not wish to be known. The painter called Balthus is one of those enigmatic recluses. Wishing his art to speak for itself, he almost never gives interviews. He prefers that catalogs do not include biographical material. He rarely makes public appearances. Thus, when Nicholas Fox Weber decided to write a book about the great Polish-French painter, Weber did not expect it would be easy.
Yet to his surprise, Balthus offered full cooperation. He even invited Weber to spend a week in his magnificent Swiss chateau. At first the old man’s charm and hospitality dazzled his biographer. It wasn’t long, however, before Weber became disillusioned. As other biographers have discovered before him, access to a living subject is a mixed blessing. Enlisted as an acolyte, Weber eventually turned on his subject. He still admires Balthus as a genius, but he also considers him a liar, a sadist and a manipulative charlatan.
    Balthus is the first full-length book about the painter and will surely stand for some time as the authoritative account of his life and work. It is also a very peculiar book, as much about the biographer’s struggles as about the artist’s life. The reader follows Weber through each stage of their tormented relationship. First Weber loves Balthus, then he hates him, then he loves him again. He changes his mind on every page. He compares himself to “a conflicted adolescent trying to resolve his views about a difficult parent.”
    Weber came to distrust everything Balthus told him, even about the basic facts of his life. Balthus denies his mother’s Jewish background and conjures up fictitious connections with Russian and Scottish ancestors. Born Balthazar Klossowski, he now calls himself the Count de Rola, a title to which he has no legitimate claim. Balthus likes to present himself as a pure aesthete, indifferent to public opinion; Weber portrays him instead as an ambitious and calculating man who has shaped his image very deliberately.
    Balthus did not become famous until late in life, but he had an auspicious start. In 1920, when he was only twelve, he published a book of drawings under the auspices of the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, his mother’s lover. More interested in realistic portraiture than the experiments of modernism, he has pursued his own iconoclastic way ever since. His work is distinctly weird, often sexually explicit, with a morbid violence under the surface. His close attention to detail and his distortions of size and proportion make his figures both plausible and bizarre. The paintings have an unsettling quality, like an anxious dream. He is most famous for depicting naked women, who seem at once distracted and available, their stocky legs splayed in awkward angles.
    Yet Balthus denies the erotic connotations of his work. He claims to be interested only in form and composition, not lust or perversion. Asked to explain a painting of a young girl in a provocative position, her underwear exposed, Balthus responds, “That’s how little girls sit.” Moreover, he refuses to admit the grotesque aspects of his art; he insists his imagery is “simple and straightforward.” He only paints what he sees in the world. In fact, he dislikes all attempts at analyzing art psychologically or allegorically. “The meaning of the painting is the painting,” he says: a visual experience that cannot be translated into words.
    But Weber wants to make the paintings meaningful for us – to do exactly what Balthus repudiates. Long chapters on individual canvases demonstrate his deep grasp of iconography and his flair for sophisticated psychological exegesis. He discusses Balthus’ laconic sado-masochism, for example, with great subtlety. Yet at every moment he is aware that Balthus would not approve of his psychoanalytic approach. He even has a fantasy of Balthus reading this book in his library: “He would look down his nose at me,” Weber imagines. He thinks Balthus is being deliberately perverse in order to make a fool of him. He believes that Balthus wants to control and subjugate him. He sees himself like one of the women in a Balthus painting --- another helpless victim.
    The battle between them is intense, and mostly in Weber’s mind. He writes sometimes as if he were indicting a Nazi war criminal, rather than describing acts of petty narcissism. Balthus baffles and insults him. Balthus is inscrutable and withholding. Balthus forces him to breathe second-hand cigarette smoke. Beneath the long list of complaints we sense Weber’s intense need for Balthus’ love and approval. In the end, their back and forth becomes quite boring, as boring as listening to someone trapped by an internal obsession, a repetitive psychic drama. Somewhere in his nine year odyssey, Weber lost crucial perspective. The reader cannot trust him. If he had been able to find a more objective voice, he might have produced a fascinating essay about the emotional hazards of writing biography; instead he provides an abject example.
Painted Into a Corner
A review of Balthus: A Biography by Nicholas Fox Weber