contre temps: entente

– Duane Michals, Balthus and Setsuko, 2000

Balthus could manage to get everyone else in trouble while keeping only himself above the fray, and he delighted in doing so.

– Nicholas Fox Weber, Balthus: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, p. 5

Balthus’s paintings had made it clear that I was dealing with someone for whom power and control were paramount issues.

– Ibid., p. 9

While many aged painters are amazed or confounded by what they have done, for Balthus there were no surprises.

– Ibid., p. 12

The personages in these paintings are also like their creator: thoughtful, and seemingly wrapped in a cocoon of sensuousness – while at the same time exulting in their own wickedness and devoid of conscience.

– Ibid., p. 14

The young artist showed himself grieving and vulnerable, at a loss for action. It was both the first and the last time he would let the world see him quite so helpless.

– Ibid., p. 21

The naked woman struck me as a powerhouse who had been subjugated, even bludgeoned – which, I now believed, was how Balthus fantasized his ladies. The watchful cat seemed the ultimate observer: seeing all without giving away any of his sinister secrets. He, too, represented the man who had painted him.

– Ibid., p. 30

Whatever bewilderment he feigned in our conversations at the notion that his imagery was provocative, he probably cultivated it, assiduously, with an eye for attention.

– Ibid., p. 34

Nicholas Fox Weber with the force of dull repetition is trying to beat into my head what Balthus was really like: calculating and capricious as a cat or King of Cats. This is the painting on the cover.

– Balthus, Le Roi des Chats, 1935

In his memoir, Vanished Splendours, Balthus claims it was his friend Antonin Artaud who declared the painter his double. Mieke Bal in her monograph supports the claim, adding that there were others who assumed the same look, dandies, it could be said. On the contrary, according to Weber:

Balthus has created himself in the mode of his heroes. Obsessed, he has imitated their artistic style, restated their subject matter, and even fashioned his own appearance in an effort to become the people he has wanted to be.

In the 1930s his idol was Antonin Artaud; by the 1950s it had become Lord Byron. To varying degrees, he tried to transform himself into each of them. But although as a painter he has borrowed heavily from Poussin, Hogarth, Seurat, and others, his foremost artistic mentor has consistently been Piero della Francesca.

– Ibid., p. 17

Zizek put it something like, With fans like this, who needs detractors?

– Balthus, Nu au chat, 1948-50

Along with having these characteristics – consciencelessness, contrariness, being manipulative and attention-seeking – it seems Balthus was also as prone to hero-worship as a teen. Or a young girl. The point is not lost on Mieke Bal. With a La jeune fille, c’est lui gesture, against all common sense, she identifies Balthus with his subjects, erotically posed young girls, poised on the cusp of …, on the eve of the Fall. Which is to say that she feels compelled to reach a conclusion regarding his relationship (one he deigned to insist was not erotic) with ‘his’ young girls.

Balthus at eighteen, past anyway the age the age he thought the best, which was thirteen, fourteen, is beautiful and soft, but hardly the epicene. The weight of darkness in this photo is almost as remarkable as the subject.

All those children are self-portraits… In every child depicted, there is as much narcissism as celebration of beauty about to erupt.

– Mieke Bal, Balthus, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, 2008, p. 141

And here it gets weird:

Because in those child’s drawings [the graphic narrative Mitsou], Balthus was not only the child who experienced love and loss; he was also the cat.

– Ibid. [my emphasis]

We are allowed to go through the looking-glass. But my aim in this post is not to condemn Nicholas Fox Weber for being somehow unreliable. Although I wish he wouldn’t bang on about the degree to which he clearly felt himself manipulated by Balthus. A kinder biographer might say charmed. Weber bludgeons the old man in quite the same manner as he claims the nude in La Chambre to have been. And then to make this a general attribute of the artist, as if to say, He was always as I find him now, visiting him at the beginning of my biography in the early 1990s. Therein lies a truth, however.

Balthus is depicted in his paintings and reading around the edges of Weber’s biography, and in other reports, for example, his own memoir, outside of time. Even in the hero-worship imputed to him, first there is Artaud, a contemporary, then Byron, then Piero:

“I’m always enchanted that one doesn’t know anything about Piero della Francesca, for example. One doesn’t even know when he was born.”

– Balthus, quoted in Weber, op. cit., p. 17

Balthus, Weber writes, painted Jane Cooley the way she did not look but the way she would look a quarter of a century later. Capricious? Perhaps. But also magic.

We know about the second childhood of the elderly and what Weber says about meeting Balthus in his eighties – despite the physical depredations wrought on him by time, his boyishness; he boasts that Rossinière is the biggest chalet in all Switzerland – might be said to turn on no more than this. Balthus himself says, however: The way to avoid second childhood is never to leave first childhood.

Even this returns to the artist, even this returns to the paintings: what Balthus admired in his Italian masters was suspension, the matte – time not stopped as if it were only a matter of clock-time, but suspended. As much as being about the nature of time, this is also a technical issue: how do Masaccio and Piero della Francesca achieve their effects? … such that they invoke all time. No longer a process, a procedure: ontological time.

– Balthus, Japonaise au miroir noir, 1967-76

This is the time in which the process occurs: a light that doesn’t change, painting in the morning, over many years… to paint as long as possible.

In response to the theory of doubles, again a matter for the looking-glass, this can be optative affiliation as much as flattery by imitation. Then, there are, as well, also the doubles. Too.