The French painter Balthus is a master of disguise. Can we ever know the man behind the image? Mark Kidel sees what lies beyond the canvas
The painter known as Balthus - now in his 90s - is a biographer's nightmare: he is a man who has, against all evidence, denied his Jewish ancestry, adopted a fictitious Polish count's title, and seems to have taken delight in continually reinventing his personal history. The problem with Nicholas Fox Weber, Balthus's first biographer, is that he takes the man and the fairy-tale biography he has spun around himself more seriously than the painting.
The result is no less of a fiction than Balthus's own playful but compulsive myth-making, for Fox Weber cannot resist devising dubious and over-simplistic psychoanalytical interpretations of key moments and relationships in Balthus's life, seeking their reflection, often quite spuriously, in his work.
Distancing himself from many of the supposedly scared or sycophantic writers who have tackled Balthus in the past - including Balthus's son Stanislas Klossowski de Rola - Fox Weber seeks out the biographical truth, with a very American sense of mission. He believes Balthus has genius, and he is clearly moved by the work, but he expresses deep unease at being in the power of his subject's rich and disturbing imagination.
According to Fox Weber, Balthus is a master of manipulation, intent on holding those around him in his power. Fox Weber also believes that the paintings are an exercise in deception: beneath their undeniable beauty, tasteful composition and painterly genius lies a dangerous mixture of cruelty, violence and perverse sexuality, all the more reprehensible for being so disturbingly hidden.
Balthus, or Balthazar Klossowski (the de Rola is most certainly an invention), stands very much alone in the history of 20th-century art - figurative in the midst of a tide of abstraction, and painting in a style that brings to mind a host of predecessors from the Italian Renaissance to the French pre-impressionists. His paintings are, however, very much of their time, not least because of their disturbing content and frequent distortion of the human body. Balthus also connected very strongly with a wide range of his contemporaries, all of whom held him in the highest esteem: men such as Giacometti, Artaud, Camus, Pierre-Jean Jouve, Bataille, Picasso and Malraux.
Apart from Piero della Francesca and Poussin, Balthus was most influenced by Rilke, who was for many years his mother's lover. For Rilke and Balthus, the world of myth and dream that they believed more accessible to children than adults was more important than everyday consciousness. That Rilke should have been fascinated by the adolescent Balthus and that the painter should have in turn been so powerfully drawn to girls at the edge of womanhood is no coincidence, for both saw in this moment of awakening a bridge between the fluidity of the imagination and the hard edge of consciousness. Distracted by the sexual dynamics of the mother-son-lover trio, Fox Weber misunderstands the significance of Rilke's role as Balthus's mentor. He half grasps Rilke's crucial influence, but seems to think of it as a form of corruption, leading the painter away from "reality". That Rilke should also have taught Balthus that beauty and enchantment are inseparable from darkness and terror Fox Weber finds intolerable. He refuses to see that the violence implied in a number of Balthus's paintings reflects inescapable elements of human nature.
Balthus is best known, notorious even, for his paintings of adolescent girls. To some he is little more than a paedophile, but the publication of a catalogue raisonne makes it abundantly clear that these paintings only form a minor part of his total oeuvre. There are many landscapes, still lifes, portraits and interior scenes that display an indisputably original genius, and the catalogue demonstrates as well that Balthus is one of the 20th century's greatest draughtsmen. Biographies are made to sell, though, and Fox Weber's portrait of Balthus, with its over-emphasis on the "scandalous" work, is, in many ways, as monstrously deformed as the monster children that haunt some of the painter's work.
Jean Clair has written a challenging if a little oblique introductory essay to the catalogue raisonné and sees Balthus as a kind of magician who will not divulge the workings of his magic. To the inquisitorial American biographer, Balthus is a master manipulator and deceiver, countering his vulnerability by unconsciously acting out his depraved fantasies in the portrayal of a recurring cast of characters - either victims or aggressors - all of whom Fox Weber claims to be reflections of the painter himself.
Fox Weber falls into Balthus's trap and plays willing victim to the whip-wielding King of Cats, one of Balthus's favourite forms of self-representation. He seeks to unmask the man, to reveal the "real persona" - ignorant it would seem that the Greek persona was an actor's mask, and therefore never subject to any kind of reality test.
Attached to a simplistic notion of the truth, Fox Weber fails to appreciate the polymorphous nature of Balthus's play, that deliberately child-like mischief closer to the riddles of a Zen master than to the lies of a confidence trickster.
Balthus must have loved the idea of an English language-bound biographer, because it allowed him to indulge in another of his favourite roles, the Byronesque dandy with a whiff of Heathcliff's savagery, dressed in three-piece tweeds and Gordons clan tie, and repeating, over tea and cucumber sandwiches, well-rehearsed anecdotes in slightly stilted Edwardian-style English. Fox Weber has checked the stories out like a dogged but rather dull-minded policeman, and he keeps a firm grasp of the "facts". But by not conducting his research in French, and given Balthus's fairly basic English, it is probable the author has missed many nuances. Although of Polish parentage, Balthus is quintessentially French, and there is a sense in which he remains, throughout the course of the biography, beyond the author's reach.
A little distance from the subject sometimes makes for a more accurate portrait, but in Fox Weber's case there is almost a chasm, and his near-caricatural American's quest for certainties does not serve the subject well. Much of the power of Balthus's painting lies in its acute feel for the creative indeterminacy associated with thresholds: the cusp between sleep and waking, childhood and sexual awakening. This is the territory of angels, the angels of Rilke's Duino Elegies , but also Balthus's child models, whom he has often described in this way, pointing to their vocation as messengers that circulate freely, unlike adults, between different worlds. It is also the crossroads world of Hermes, the message-bearer of the gods but also trickster, thief, magician and liar.
Fox Weber cannot abide the thought that anything of value might be associated with lies and deception. This is distinctly un-American. But worse still, he has real problems with the erotic subject-matter of some of Balthus's paintings, torn between excitement and guilt, in the manner of so many of his compatriots. Sex is never straightforward in America, and Fox Weber finds it hard to accept that Eros might have something to do with the pulse of life itself, and that landscapes and flower paintings might have erotic content.
So inevitably, as an American, Balthus's biographer tortures himself when he is turned on by Balthus's girls or the powerful eroticism of some of Balthus's great and distinctly perverse paintings of the 1930s. He hangs on desperately to the undeniable painter's genius that Balthus has displayed throughout most of his working life, and writes very evocatively at times - and with a keen eye for detail - of Balthus's technique, composition and extraordinary command of colour and glaze, but this only increases his sense of betrayal by a man whose genius he seems to feel has been used to deceive and corrupt him. At one particularly revealing point in his search for the truth, Fox Weber shows The Victim , a painting that depicts a naked woman lying down, asleep or possibly dead, with a knife barely visible on the floor beside her, to the chief of the Manhattan district attorney's Sex Crimes Unit. "I wanted," he writes, "an accurate diagnosis of the woman's situation," as if an expert's opinion could clear up the mixed feelings that the painting undoubtedly provokes.
Balthus has always shunned interpretation: for him, the exercise is worse than self-defeating because the reductive games of the mind destroy the intrinsic power of images. Balthus's "lies" can be taken as a form of dishonesty, but they can also be understood as a continual challenge - worthy of the divine liar and cheat Hermes - to the tyranny of consensus "reality" and "truth". Art might be a kind of lie that gets you closer to the truth. As Balthus knows all too well, it is almost impossible to write about the things most essential to great painting. Jean Clair's poetic essay in the catalogue raisonné , with illuminating references to Kleist, Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, is tentative and allusive. He does what a sensation-biased biographer cannot do, and that is begin to locate Balthus in the context of modernity.
In stark contrast, Balthus's son, de Rola, in a slightly revised introductory essay to a useful basic collection of his father's work, makes claims for the timeless spirituality of the paintings that are perhaps best left unwritten, as they are, to a receptive audience, more than obvious. The catalogue raisonné is expensive, but, as with all comprehensive volumes of this kind, it provides a fascinating record of the artist's development and working methods.
In the biography's case, we come away knowing more about the author's confused obsessions and capacity for guilt and self-flagellation than we do about the "real" Balthus. Much of the book works on the level of gossip: some of it is entertaining, particularly Fox Weber's account of the bizarre places in which many of the privately owned works now hang. The book's journalistic easy-read quality is matched, however, by sloppy fact and spell-checking: Balthus fantasises about being encoulé by Jean-Louis Barrault; the great French actor Alain Cuny appears as Curry, the Nazi sculptor Arno Brecker as Breher, and our own Lucian Freud is gallicised as Lucien.
Fox Weber admits feeling betrayed by Balthus. It is a pity that he should have allowed himself to become so personally involved with his subject, and driven relentlessly to settling scores with a man whose work is so much more important than his life.
Mark Kidel directed a film about Balthus for the BBC's Omnibus programme in 1996.
Balthus: A Biography
Author - Nicholas Fox Weber
ISBN - 0 297 64323 1
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £30.00
Pages - 644