To Whom Do You Refer?
The King of Cats, Balthus, 1935
Balthus: A Biography,
by Nicholas Fox Weber,
Dalkey Archive Press, 656 pp.
by Robyn Ferrell
“Each man kills the thing he loves …” – perhaps a phrase especially suited to biographers.
The pitfalls of identification, hero-worship, envy and malice can beset the most patient writer in the throes of five hundred-plus pages of attention to genius.
The comprehensive biography of the artist Balthus written by Nicholas Fox Weber, and first published by Knopf in 2003, was charged by reviewers with several misdemeanours. The New York Times said: ‘With his simple and punishing brand of psychobiography, Weber not only turns every painting into a string of homilies, he also confuses life and art.’
The biographer is by nature a supplicant. Balthus, with his vaporous plume of lies and obfuscation, would have tried the patience of a saint. And Fox Weber made a vast effort to master his subject. But Balthus didn’t become the last living European Master by allowing himself to be outwitted by flat-footed art historians.
Balthus, of all biographical subjects, could prompt flights of speculation about the power of identifications, the pain of illusions and the force of myth. He painted pubescent girls ‘with their knickers showing’, and he invented tales about his noble origins (he styled himself as a Polish count) living the life of a European grandee in chateaux and villas of immense style.
Whatever else one might doubt about the details of his biography, he had an exemplary intellectual pedigree in the Europe of the twentieth century. To say Balthus knew all the right people is an understatement. Born into the Freudian age, there was scarcely a big name of European Arts and Letters that he hadn’t encountered, one way or another. His stepfather was Rainer Maria Rilke; his brother was philosopher Pierre Klossowski. Pierre Bonnard, Paul Valéry and Andre Gide were family friends, he collaborated with Antonin Artaud, André Derain, knew Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and on and on.
It helped that he lived so long. His life was a study in the cult of celebrity. In 2001, at his death, the funeral guests showed how that category had morphed over the century, so that while he grew up knowing painters and artists, the funeral featured rock stars like Bono and David Bowie and supermodels like Elle Macpherson.
His inventions reveal that the currency of art is the currency of prestige. Balthus appeared to be very good at glamour, ‘creating himself as a work of art’: his birthday falling in a leap year, the noble lineage with a suggestion of royal alliance, and the grand European style. And his painting, which endured through a time when the peepshow of the sexual delighted cultural life, into a period when it became a hermeneutic, until it strangely fell from fashion giving way to the rhizomatic and the virtual.
Balthus’ work has now come to look more and more ‘last century’, while psychobiography, too, has fallen into redundancy along with psychoanalytic theory generally. Perhaps in the wake of the endlessly tendentious stream of virtual images outside our heads, the unconscious has slipped again from view. Depth has lost its appeal and the uncanny is no longer disturbing us now that things are not expected to follow logic, or find Truth or get to the bottom of anything. Just a free play of signifiers – ironically Jacques Lacan and other poststructuralists were blamed for this, but it was a case of shooting the messenger.
So the reissue of this biography last year was surprising. It was planned to coincide with the retrospective on Balthus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in September 2013. The Met Store declined to stock it; perhaps it would have competed with their own catalogue, newly-minted at some expense, and authored by a curator who was not a fan of Mr. Weber.
Does this explain the aggrieved tone of the biographer’s new preface to this new edition? It became personal.
I do not mean that the book was attacked. I mean that the critics, both of whom I knew personally prior to their writing their reviews, lambasted me – enough to make one of my daughters dissolve into tears …
Some might say the biographer brought this last on himself, since it was he who recounted the breathless story of taking his daughters to visit the old man.
Weber’s biography, no less than Balthus’ paintings, invite psychoanalytic interpretation. The biography is characterised by his ambivalence about the artist. His analysis of the work attributes character flaws to the man: “the artist is a narcissist, a lecher, a liar and a cruel and seductive fantasist”as the New York Times précised his point – while elsewhere waxing lyrical about his feelings for Balthus.
The 2013 preface has a bitterness for which he asks the reader to forgive him, but returns to his subject in the same ambivalent style, reminding us Balthus was a law unto himself because, unlike ordinary people, he not only saw but could depict events like sunlight falling on grass; “… the miraculousness of such an event – how amazing it all is: light itself, the existence of the sun …”
Drawing from Balthus’s Mitsou series, 1919
Ann on Good Reads Community Reviews writes: “This book is really annoying. I am beginning to wonder who is more annoying, the author or the subject.“
By the end, Weber displays the worst of biography; gossipy and judgemental (despite declaring ‘I do not judge’ in the curious preface). Literal at the same time as histrionic, he wears an unimaginative groove around and around a meagre interpretation. Despite the hundreds of pages, the book offers little insight into the painter’s work. For art history it seems visually quite unresponsive, with little aesthetic feel for the period.
The original Publishers Weekly reviewwas kinder than The New York Times but said: “Weber insists that the artist articulate the intentions behind each and every element in his work. Of course, no painter could, and Balthus, whether from age, puckishness or the sincere conviction that his art must speak for itself, toys with Weber throughout their conversations.”
While Weber succeeds in providing an exhaustively-researched account of Balthus’ life events, the laboured reading of paintings that are the soul of brevity and enigma, is less successful. Less art, more historian, peevish and obsequious by turns, the biographer reduces his subject as he inflates the word count. He then lapses into implausible avowal of love for Balthus , while coating the artist’s oeuvre in thick layers of psycho-banality and accusations of error.
The engagement between a biographer and a living subject is one of the most fraught of all human relationships. … My biggest problem was the way I enjoyed him and revered him whenever we were face-to-face; his charms blinded me to his faults. (p235)
And toward the end of the book:
My mental situation could not have been more at odds with the mandate of my many years of all too substantial academic training in art history. Instead of pursuing the course of objective scholarship, I had developed an internal relationship with my subject which had become like that of a volatile teenager with a beloved, or of a conflicted adolescent trying to resolve his views about a difficult parent. It was as if at every moment I had to decide whether I adored or detested this person and his work. (p585)
It is of course a perfect description of what analysts call ‘transference’, with all the plausibility and paranoia of that mental state. By definition, this response attests to an engagement with an internal drama rather than with the figure occasioning it.
Weber then makes an extraordinary admission: “This was not the first time I had handled the complex situation of writing about someone by developing an obsessive fondness for him or her and, at the same time, mentally becoming my subject. The person with whom I was engaged on the page turned into my closest family member; the imaginative, brilliant, accomplished parent of my dreams, a friend and brother.”
It is reasonable to ask the biographer, then, when he sees the desire to dominate and control: ‘To whom do you refer?’
Part of the problem is that Balthus painted little girls naked. Even at the time of the surrealists, such figurative frankness was a challenge. The nude has always been an artist’s subject, but in canvases like ‘The Guitar Lesson’ Balthus modelled a desire that belonged to the time of sexual repression and disorder. Even if Balthus was queering art history more than he was leering at girls, he was all the same portraying ravishment or the temptation of it.
His refusal to ‘confess’ to paedophiliac desires infuriated Weber, and yet the rush to judgement of the critic would be galling for any painter intent on rendering his subject. For whatever motive of aesthetic stimulant or sexual deviance, the erotic plane is naturally essential to the effect of Balthus’ work. But whether it is the painter or the viewer who ravishes the girl in the painting is never an interesting question for the biographer.
These days the challenge of this nudity is reviled against a background of clergy sexual abuse and 24/7 internet porn. Is Balthus a pervert, a pornographer, an anthropologist or an astute marketer? How offensive does art have to be before it is no longer art?
It defies encapsulation, the way Weber thrusts his daughters toward a man he elsewhere decries as paedophiliac, only to observe that “whatever he may do through the fantasy of his art, in real life Balthus did not want to possess these female children.” (p589)
Now the fine vintage on which Balthus was drunk was my daughters. But he tempered his engagement with restraint and formality; Lucy and Charlotte’s admirer was completely respectful.
The sentimental outpouring is bad enough, but having tabled this, what follows? Anyone seeking self-analysis will be disappointed. “For whatever reasons, I had taken my two beautiful children to meet the ultimate connoisseur of little girls … By now I had devoted years to trying to understand Balthus’s attitude toward young women … At the same time, I was addressing my own emotional complexity; grappling with my own unclear conception of mental health …”
The impulse to insight appears to close up again. The ‘Afterword’ contents itself with disparaging Balthus’ last work, ‘Cat at the Mirror III’ and his wife Setsuko.
There appear to be only two ways to read the figurative on Weber’s approach. Either it is a literal portrayal of the world or it is a psychosexual pantomime. Jacques Lacan might as well not have existed, despite his appearance with others in the biographer’s account of the friends and feuds of the artist.
Balthus’ painting, even where regarded as figurative, gives life to that category and confounds its conventional opposition with ‘abstract’. The paintings couldn’t be clearer in terms of the objects they portray. And yet they couldn’t be more enigmatic, given their luminous tempera surfaces and sexual tones.
In some cases, they make visible that which should not be seen. In others, the depictions of figures in inconsequential moments not designed to be witnessed (sleeping, leaning across a table) perhaps suggest the invasion of the eye simultaneously with the unreachable quality of the figure, who despite being seen is not captured or owned. The fugitive nature of desire is stylised in deceptively simple settings.
Perhaps ironically, it is regarding a painting that involves no nudity nor any salacious rendition of prepubescent sexuality that Weber is at his most scandalous. Discussing ‘The Painter and His Model’, and having declared that “Life and the art that re-creates that life intersect in myriad ways on this canvas”, Weber is nevertheless brought up short by comments made by the painter Cleve Gray. He tells Weber that “Balthus shows himself with his back to us for entirely visual reasons. The painter wears a turban only because of aesthetics.”
His extended arm can be explained by its role as a vital linear element that takes us to the edge of the canvas. The turban or head bandage is a splendid compact massing of white on white just where it is needed. These are painter’s decisions, and that’s how a painter’s mind works. Listening to an artist, it occurred to me that perhaps all of Balthus’s assertions to me were correct – that the basis for everything, indeed, is visual. (p567)
But Weber turns away from this possibility, by now having too much invested in ‘the art is the life’ thesis: “Yet, finally, I cannot help thinking that every decision behind this painting – although unquestionably informed, as Cleve Gray maintains, by Balthus’s splendid eye – is the result of the same program whereby Balthus manipulates his celebrity/recluse image and his elevation in the world.”
It is a disturbing assertion of the power of the critic, commenting of a painter deploying his own visual imaginary that: “By making the proportions disconcerting and the iconographical elements discombobulating, Balthus exerts his own power.”
Indeed casting the artist and viewer as locked in a power struggle is a consummate critical act: “Yet, perhaps, in seeing these factors as deriving from the artist’s psychological intent, his craving to dominate, I have brought more of myself to bear here – and too little of him. This is of course what Balthus would have me believe.” There is something disoriented and disorienting in this transferential metaphysics.
At some point, you have to start wondering whether Balthus isn’t right: ‘’everyone is excited because you can see the little girls’ underpants …’ declared the New York Times. ‘The problem is the viewer’s longings and interests, not mine.’
Without wishing to turn away from the piquancy of sensations with which Balthus’ paintings are alive, and affirming politics of any portrayal of the feminine body even today, if Weber’s reading is psychosexual it owes more to Masters & Johnson than to l’Ecole Freudienne. Weber provides fodder to the Gallic scorn heaped on American psychoanalysis in the twentieth century that it turned Freud from a theorist of the unconscious into an ego-psychologist, and in so doing succumbed to the elementary mistake of believing the blandishments of the transference.
It’s tempting to compare Balthus to another figurist and darling of French intellectuals, Francis Bacon. Deleuze’s wonderful study of him unseats the idea that painting is about representing things at all. It is a kind of action, and this makes of ‘The Guitar Lesson’ not a portrayal of the mind of an artist nor of the viewer so much as an exercise in sensation.
Weber makes a category error in collapsing the art into the psychology of the artist. It’s succinctly put in a vignette told of Matisse. When asked by a viewer: ‘Why do you make all your women so ugly?’, Matisse is said to have replied: ‘Madam, that is a painting, not a woman’.
If you really thought, as a biographer, that you had lost yourself this way in your subject, what might you do? If you really thought you owed a duty to ‘objective scholarship’, would you withdraw the project? Would you rewrite it with the judgements on the art and its iconography expunged, just ‘sticking to the facts’? Would you revisit your theory of biography and reformulate it to better fit the practice?
Weber does none of these things. He is disingenuous on several counts. He declares his love for his subject, but doesn’t give this the same psychosexual scrutiny that he gives the painter. He raises the possibility that his discovery of what is behind the painting is specious visually, but doesn’t correct it. And he elects to see his work enter a second edition unrepentant.
From which we can only adduce that Weber feels his biographer’s habit of passion for his subjects trumps the scholarly requirement of objectivity – perhaps he believes such an ideal is unbelievable, which may be true – and that writing in judgement about an artist is a pleasure to which he is entitled, and need not defend.
Weber captures many facts and stories, as well as pronouncing endless judgements, in his long trudge through an artful life. The subject flees before him, like a fugitive pigment destroyed by the light of day.
About the Author:
Robyn Ferrell is a research fellow in the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney and has taught at the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University and the University of Tasmania. She has also held visiting research positions at the London School of Economics and the University of Western Sydney, and is the author of Copula: Sexual Technologies, Reproductive Powers, Genres of Philosophy and Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan. Her most recent book is Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context.