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VANISHING SPLENDORS: A MEMOIR/BALTHUS, as told to Alain Vircondelet; Ecco/Harper Collins.

What if Balthus were painting here, today, would he be open to charges of kiddie porn? It would be a charge based on ignorance, but ignorance has often led the charge. Anyone reading this memoir hoping to ferret out Freudian motives for those sensously painted pubescent girls will find little revealed. Balthus refused to explain himself or his work, granting nearly no interviews over a long career. He equated himself with his art and expected the curious to find answers there. "I never interpreted my paintings or sought to understand what they might mean. Anyway, must they necessarily mean something?"

The "sound" of this intense reminiscence is of tissue paper. Old, aubergine-colored, I imagined, giftwrap rustling. It is Balthus whispering. The memoir was dictated to the biographer, Alain Vircondelet. His voice weak, eyesight nearly gone, Balthus knew his death hovered. He continued to paint; his wife, Countess Setsuko, ground and mixed the colors that he could still see.

Other Book Reviews:

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Vanishing Splendor
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Skirt and Fiddle
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Nowhere Man
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The Book of Illusions
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Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
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Them: Adventures With Extremists
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This is Not a Novel
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P. Nathanson and K. Young

The tissue paper whisper gives way to a rhythm as Balthus slowly pieces his world together over two years of dictation to Mr. Vircondelet. Balthus saw himself as a laborer humbly approaching his craft. He spent years on each canvas, usually painting on three at once so that a dialogue would evolve between them. "I often insist on the necessity of prayer. To paint as one prays...to accede to silence and what is invisible in the world. I am not sure of being followed or understood...given that a majority of morons make so-called contemporary art, artists who know nothing about painting. But that doesn't matter. Painting has always taken care of itself. In order to reach it even slightly, I'd say it must be ritually seized. To snatch what it can offer as a form of grace."

Born in 1908, Balthus died in 2001, before the memoir was complete. Though he lived a cloistered life, he kept in touch the world beyond his aerie in the Swiss Alps. He and Setsuko lived in a faded former inn, the Grand Chalet. Huge, with many windows, it resembles an Oriental temple. Piero della Francesca, Cezanne, Courbet, Delacroix, the ancient Chinese Sung landscape painters were sources he returned to again and again. Mountains were a repeated theme. He went to the Alps partly for health, partly for childhood memories. He was not "autistic", though, in his solitude. His daughter Harumi grew up in the Grand Chalet at Rossinière. Friends and visitors punctuated a tranquil work routine. Richard Gere, whose photographs of Tibet Balthus admired, was a guest, but so were Bono and Sharon Stone, and--hold on--Tony Curtis.

Balthus hadn't always bundled himself away. He was once of the Paris monde, though he never sought riches or fame, and success eluded him most of his life. Painting was not only a mission to Balthus, it was a gamble. His Paris pals read like a who's who of some of my all time favorites: Artaud, Derain, Miró, Georges Braque, Malraux, Albert Camus, and they helped keep him afloat. In 1948 he designed sets for Camus' State of Siege, and they were friends until the writer's death. Alberto Giacometti, too, was a great friend and inspiration. Pierre Colle gave him his first Paris show in 1934. Colle was surrounded by the Paris elite, "...he took care of me, and made great efforts to assemble a network of collectors." Balthus was lucky to find such a genie.

He worked figuratively after the genre was over; abstraction was hot; figurative painting passé. Balthus loathed the new art, having a special disdain for the Surrealists and what he saw as Andre Breton's intellectual tricks. Painting for him was an entry into the spiritual, not to explain the world, but to express its "darkness and mystery". This cannot be arrived at by technique alone. "Personality cults by contemporary painters infuriate me...Sometimes I feel annoyed and resentful over not having had the easy career, open doors, and royal welcome that some painters have found...Painting cannot be done among the world's hubbub...It is better to seek solitude and silence, to be surrounded by past masters, to reinvent the world, not be cradled by false sirens, cash, galleries, fashionable games, etc." Try selling that idea in today's art market.

Picasso admired Balthus for these beliefs. He bought his canvas, The Children. Before World War I displaced the family, his father had gathered artists into their home; Andre Gide and Bonnard were regulars. Balthus drank his boyhood milk among the cream of the Parisian artworld. The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke was perhaps the most formative influence. He and Balthus's mother, Baladine, became lovers, and she eventually took her children to live with the poet. Resentful at first, the young Balthus was soon enchanted. Rilke was attentive, even publishing the little drawings of Mitsou, a cat whose loss left Balthus inconsolable. It was Rilke who, "showed me nocturnal paths, giving me a taste for slipping through narrow passages to reach The Open."

This concept of The Open, an ethereal crossing to a place of mystery, became the sought after truth of his art. Balthus referred frequently to his Catholicism, his prayerful approach. I suspect he could have used other rites or religions to arrive at The Opening. His faith, while sincere, became a part of his craft, a device as much as a dedication.

And what about all those budding girls? Prayerful? Balthus had much to say about his adolescent "angels", but one word he refused was erotic. Instead, a cusp: baby flesh at the moment of sexual flowering? He mentions Lewis Carroll, what Carroll "referred to as the secret 'paradise of vanished splendors.'" I could not find that line in, Through The Looking Glass, but this one from it speaks to Balthus's purpose: "And, though the shadow of a sigh/May tremble through the story/For 'happy summer days' gone by/And vanished summer glory/It shall not touch, with breath of bale/The pleasures of our fairy-tale."

He spoke of a "naive, natural complicity with young girls," of the "spiritual risks during long posing sessions," seeking to render, "that which lay beneath their bodies and features, in their silence and darkness." Indeed. Nothing afraid or priggish about this artist. Rejecting that the paintings were the product of a lewd imagination, he gives a bit of ground on one, The Guitar Lesson, which he admits was "willfully scandalous". Balthus may have attempted to capture a split second between innocence and knowledge, but the paintings of young girls are undeniably charged. Impossible to miss the eroticism of, The Room, where a flat-headed, impish child yanks back a window curtain to expose her pubescent sister, fully nude, back arched, stretched across a chair as a cat looks on. It's a terrific, starling image.

He called his many portraits "a gap in the unknown," and spoke often of entering what Rilke called, "the crack," or his own term, "wonderland," saying, "painting must be prepared to accept magic." There is a whiff of the aesthete about Balthus, or, to use his words, aristocratic, feudal; with his falcon-like good looks, the kimonos he took to wearing, his eccentricities, and young girls. Some of this is inherited. Balthus was titled--a Count, of old Polish gentry, though he was born in France. I expected him to slip into preciousness but there is something fierce and dark about Balthus that prevented his becoming mannered. Poverty had to be learned when his father suddenly lost the family fortune on risky Russian railway stock. The family emerged into a genteel poverty. The Grand Chalet became Balthus and Setsuko's only by trading paintings with Pierre Matisse, who made the actual purchase. He lived well, but simply, and in debt. Yet surrounded by beauty. Without the drama of beauty, I think Balthus would have withered.

He retired to the French countryside in 1940 after being wounded in the war. At some point a wife, Antionette de Watteville, and two sons were added to the picture. He spent part of the 1950's in Chassy, on a rundown estate with his niece, Frédérique. Balthus painted this girlish niece several times. The suggestion is that they were more than muse and master. Frédérique was heartbroken when a young Japanese student, Setsuko, came on the scene in 1962. By then, French Cultural Minister, Andre Malraux had sent him to Rome to restore the Villa Médicis, an undertaking that went on for years. Italy saw a more public Balthus. He married Setsuko (Antionette, too, had been very young, Balthus first met her when she was four!). In Rome he became friends with the film director, Federico Fellini.

The memoir reads like a fairly tale, told on the edges of the real world. In the end, Balthus remained secretive, held true to his word: To know him, know his art. He would explain neither. And that ambiguity is probably best. Impossible anyway to explain the source of his ripening nudes, peculiar portraits and resplendent landscapes. "To go toward The Open," he said, "to approach and sometimes attain it by snatching deferred moments, and then return to passing time." Balthus: the alchemist of vanishing splendor.

©January 2002 J. Stefan-Cole


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