Baltusz, c’est Spinoziste! Since, La luz es tiempo que se piensa – Paz; while these are excerpts from Guy Davenport’s A Balthus Notebook

Guy Davenport’s notebook is organised as a series of notes, some as short as a single line. In citing them, I have retained the numbers that appear at the top of each note as well as the page numbers below. I have added emphases, bigness and boldness.


We have yet to study in modern painting the choice of motif after the break between patron and artist in the early nineteenth century. Not even the portrait as a document or landscape as a sentiment for a room’s decoration survives this new context for the visual arts. This change was also a metamorphosis in taste. Malraux has his theory: that art became an absolute, that from Goya forward painting had only its own authority as a witness to proceed with, alienated in one sense (from church and palace) but liberated in another to its own destiny.

– Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook, The Ecco Press, New York, 1989, p. 20


Balthus has the immediacy of a naive painter. Picasso’s figures are all actors, wearers of masks, mediators, like Picasso himself, between reality and illusion. Pierrot, woman as artist’s model, the Ballet Russe, the commedia dell’arte dominate his entire oeuvre. Nowhere in Balthus does this theme of actor and theatre appear (though he has designed for the stage and was a friend of Artaud). There is great integrity in his resisting it. His tradition stands apart from that of Rouault, Braque, Picasso, Klee, Ensor, and others for whom acting has been a metaphor and art a stage.

Nor do we find in Balthus any overt enlistment of mythology, which has been so characteristic of his time. No Venuses, no Danaës among all those girls. Even his cats and gnomes do not derive from folklore or myth. He is not part of any renaissance. His work is an invention.

Each painting is an invention, not the application of a technique. Each painting holds an imaginary conversation with some other painter, The Window with Bonnard, The Farmyard with Cézanne, The Living Room with Courbet, The Dream with Chardin.

The Mountain (in which the girl in the foreground stretches with the feline inflection of Gregor Samsa’s sister at the end of “The Metamorphosis”) is a dialogue with the Courbet of Les rochers de Mouthiers and La falaise d’Étretat après l’orage.

– Ibid., p. 22

from 18

When Delacroix and Ingres painted odalisques, the harem constituted a critique of the body, its governance, the sources of power over it. An odalisque by Matisse is simply a model in a chair. From slave and wage slaves to Balthus is the distance between slavery and liberty.

– Ibid., p. 25

from 23

on Balthus’s The Passage:

A more wonderful way of seeing Proust’s theory of the redemption of time in triumphant proof I cannot imagine.

-Ibid., p. 32


One becomes inured to the hard truth that reality is a function of dreams, that things are perceived according to what they symbolise, which is what caused them to be selected in the first place from myriads of others, all competing for attention. Symbolism is the language of dreams (Zolla, 16).

– Ibid., p. 57

from 41

The grace of line in a Lascaux horse is not the horse, but something that has been abstracted from it.

– Ibid., p. 61

Cf. Balthus’s view that Matisse wanted to simplify painting, in all senses; and that Mondrian locked himself into a pattern of self-denial when he turned away from nature, and refused to allow guests at his studio to open the shutters.

from 49

The crux is this: that instead of asking the world not to threaten our solitude, our personal and solipsistic order, we should so behave ourselves as not to threaten the world’s order. This involves our understanding, and agreeing to, the world’s order, a process of complex immensity, but one in which culturally the arts have a great, mediating role.

In time, we will see Balthus as kin to Joyce on the one hand (our biological mandate civilized by a poetry of desire and its constraints), and to Proust on the other (the tragedy of time illuminated by the beauty and wonder of being alive).

– Ibid., pp. 70-71

from 56

Octavio Paz ends a poem [“La vista, el tacto“] dedicated to Balthus with “La luz es tiempo que se piensa” (“Light is time thinking about itself,” Eliot Weinberger translates; Paz, 95).

– Ibid., p. 78

from 61

Spectators smacked of the drunken, vicious dandies who watched boxing and cockfights in a morbid pursuit of excitement. Spectators were ignorant of sport, devoid of idealism, and avid merely to be amused.

– Ibid., p. 85