ALCHEMIST OF VANISHING SPLENDOR
A non-review by
SPLENDORS: A MEMOIR/BALTHUS, as told to Alain Vircondelet;
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
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.
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
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
©January 2002 J. Stefan-Cole