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Balthus (Nicholas Fox Weber)


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Working on Albert Camus's L'etat de siège, in 1948. From left to right: Jean-Louis Barrault, Arthur Honnegar, Balthus, Maria Cesarès, Albert Camus












































































































































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Balthus and Setseko, by Henri Cartier-Bresson
 

In The Street, Balthus became Piero della Francesca in twentieth-century Parisian dress. To consider the issue is to violate the artist's own dictates at every step, but its validity is self-evident.

When I asked him about John Russell's idea, supported with illustrations in the 1968 Tate catalog, that the carpenter shouldering his wooden plank in The Street derives directly from the figure, also clad in white, carrying the wood of the cross in Piero's chapel in Arezzo, Balthus replied, "One could so endlessly find sources. Painting has always come out of painting. In the Middle Ages, every painter was influenced by another painter. There was a model for all the subjects. Carpenters carry wood. Period.

"In Paris a man carrying a board was something so usual that even without Piero you had to close your eyes not to see it. But art historians need walking sticks," Balthus wistfully lamented, his cigarette moving up and down between his lips as he spoke.

Yet he used a myriad of details from the Arezzo frescoes in his painting of ordinary, contemporary life--whether or not he realized he was doing so.

The tam worn by the little boy being carried closely resembles the saucer-like hat worn by Piero's Judas. Surely Balthus was not impervious to the ironic touch of restating it with a pom-pom in The Street, to the humor of adding this childish ornament to the headgear of a traitor. Balthus's little creature also wears a collar of exactly the same design and proportions as the Arezzo Judas. This odd character of puzzling identity is truly Piero's traitor as a little boy living in modern Paris, the joint creation of an early Renaissance master and the young hellion who worshiped him.

The Greek cross on the well-dressed woman's hat echoes the cross on the flag in another of Piero's Arezzo frescoes: The Victory of Heracles. Its light-fused, pale tomato red is almost precisely the same hue as the background of that flag, and it functions similarly as a powerful, vibrant, upbeat element in the overall composition. There is also an uncanny resemblance between the central teenage boy in The Street, the one walking toward us with his right hand across his waist--and one of Adam and Eve's children at Arezzo. As facial types, both this boy and the assailant of the girl in red, practically his doppelganger, have features identical to those of many of Piero's characters: the same full lips, flattened noses, wide cheeks, and perfectly arched eyebrows. Like Piero's heads, these faces are compelling more as artistry than as specimens of nature.

Throughout his subsequent work, Balthus would continue to use this very limited repertory of facial types--as if his design agenda always mattered more than the appearance of specific individuals. Rather than create new people, he made everyone conform to the model of a round, masklike disk with perfectly organized, symmetrical features and the eyes ludicrously wide apart. The people seem predetermined and calculated--copied from something rather than possessed of their own independence and force.

Balthus's youths--not only those in The Street but also a number of his subsequent creations, the most striking being his 1976 Katia Reading--descend directly from the facial type Piero gives to the first figure in the Queen of Sheba's retinue, the turbaned man in Solomon's retinue, Constantine's lieutenant, Judas, Adam's children, and various other personages. If Balthus did not intentionally have the relationship in mind, the only other plausible explanation for the close resemblance is that he was so hypnotized by those early Renaissance faces as to be unaware of the trance in which he re-formed them. The figures in The Street, with their globular heads and wide eyes, were by no means the ordinary French street types of the time; they are Piero's biblical characters reincarnated.


Balthus's boys and girls are the heirs of Piero's figures in more than their physiognomies. They also share the look Piero gave his subjects of knowing something we do not know. Transfixed, all these creatures both belong to our world and exist outside of it--with their cache of private information.

Piero's figures impart majesty to their everyday deeds. Balthus's "ordinary" Parisians do the same. Each person in The Street is sure of what he or she is doing--be it mischievous, playful, or diligent. Balthus has made their actions momentous by locking them into his or her own microclimate with the stillness of children playing "Statues."

A master choreographer, Balthus has put all the people in The Street in tight geometric relationship to one another. Seven of them--all except for the girl under attack and the boy being carried--are strong columnar forms, locked in position like units of architecture.

That ordering, the faces themselves, and the dignified movement all make the creator of The Street Piero della Francesca's filial heir. By becoming, in his own way, Piero, Balthus could obtain the control and quiet majesty, as well as the visual sumptuousness, he craved.


The hues of Balthus's canvas are much the same as that of The Victory of Heracles at Arezzo. The tonality is practically identical. There is a softness to the coloring, a sense of distance, a refinement that lends noble stature to the subject matter.

Piero's elegant reserve is evident. Using a limited palette, Balthus, too, has put his colors in quiet discourse with one another. The resonance of the colors is paralleled by the interaction of the forms. In a precise program, arcs, spheres, and cylinders have a similar impact on one another as do blacks, ochers, and russets. The Street, like The Queen of Sheba's Visit to Solomon, has been divided carefully, the spaces neatly delineated and divided, the columns worked out in an orderly sequence. Balthus's painting, like Piero's Flagellation, can be described by Kenneth Clark's words: "space created and space filled."


As a young artist in a modern metropolis, Balthus, rather than embrace the present, looked to history and gave Paris in the 1930s the scale and pace of Piero's fifteenth-century Borgo Sansepolcro. In Rossinière I was struck by the degree to which Balthus the artist has completed the process; here he has not only halted time but turned the dock backward. This is a community where he knows everyone, if not as names then at least as types. On weekday mornings, workmen in caps carry their tools and buckets to their barns and workshops. Women have their market bags. Schoolchildren walk their usual routes. An old-fashioned train whistle offers its loud shriek like clockwork. The details of daily existence provide the structure and purpose of life.

Wood is everywhere. It is the main material for both building and heating, visible in the roof shingles, ornate balconies, siding, and beams of the local houses as in the stacks of firewood everywhere. In planks and logs, it is piled high; catching the sunlight, those planks bear the same rich grain as the board in The Street which recollects the cross being carried at Arezzo. The other dominant materials are stone and plaster: of ancient tradition, solid, resistant to age. Balthus's paintings may hang in the Centre Pompidou, but in his own life he has no taste for the chrome and glitz of contemporary Paris. Since the French capital no longer offers Piero's tempo, Balthus has found a mountain hamlet that does.


When Balthus finished The Street at the age of twenty-five, he wrote to friends that it was his first important painting. Discussing the canvas with me, Balthus took an approach like that of certain aged parents toward their children. They are not sure if their offspring are successes, but the progeny are, for better or worse, their legacy to the world.

Yet when I insist that the painting was an unusual accomplishment for someone aged twenty-five, Balthus disagreed. Seurat was no older when he painted La Grande Jatte, he pointed out.

The comparison was relevant. Seurat was an artist who periodically painted monumental group scenes, the same sort of summation pictures that Balthus has occasionally made. As numerous observers have written, The Street is very much in the tradition of La Grande Jatte. Every element of these complex compositions is obeisant to the grid. Balthus admired Seurat's rigor, his perpetual compliance with the vertical/horizontal arrangement, and the intricate relationship he developed among the parts. Seurat was a supremely self-disciplined craftsman and observer, detached and astute: the stance Balthus also desired. Like Seurat, by locking everyone within a visual nexus, Balthus froze time and ordered experience in a well-crafted mechanism--operated by him alone.

But Seurat was not the only artist Balthus pointed out to me as doing more than he had by the age of twenty-five. Masaccio was younger when he painted the Brancacci Chapel; Mantegna produced some of his finest work at sixteen. One of the reasons for the early success of people like Seurat and Mantegna, Balthus explained, is that these artists had the advantage of having had minimal formal education. Nowadays school keeps young people from doing anything important. In earlier times, they might have become painters' apprentices at the age of eleven or twelve. They would have painted out of necessity and avoided the debilitating effects of too much education.

Balthus often reiterated to me that the sole education that mattered in his own development was the simple act of looking--at good art, and the world around him. People should enjoy and cultivate their powers of observation--not accumulate facts or gratuitous theories.


No one bought The Street from the Galerie Pierre. Most of its admirers-- young poets, fellow artists, and others on the fringes of Parisian life--could not afford it, while the sort of Parisians who had enough money to purchase such a large painting found it too scandalous.

But even without a purchaser, The Street had admirers. Antonin Artaud and Pierre Jean Jouve were among the literary figures who soon wrote about its effects on them; Albert Camus eventually followed suit. The Surrealists became so fascinated by the large canvas in the show at the Galerie Pierre that they asked Balthus to let them exhibit it in the Minotaure exhibition held in Paris later that year; they hung it there in the section with work by Picasso, Brancusi, Duchamp, Klee, and Kandinsky.

Then, just over two years after the exhibition closed, The Street was purchased--surprisingly, by an American. James Thrall Soby, just two years older than Balthus, was an adventurous young collector with a taste characterized by Alfred Barr as "bold enough to confront the formidable." The heir to fortunes made from the machine that returned change on pay telephones and from a tobacco business that sold cigars called "the German lovers," he had only recently come to discover that what he wanted to do with his life was to acquire, curate, and write about paintings.

Soby had seen The Street in Balthus's exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in 1934. He had not purchased it then, but neither had he been able to get it out of his mind. For two years, he had "brooded about it almost constantly." Astonished but relieved to see that it had not been sold by the time he returned to Paris in late 1936, he bought it instantly.

Soby had assumed that the reason no one else had obtained The Street was because of its size. This had been his problem; in 1934 he had been living in a suburban home where there was no wall that could easily accommodate a painting that measured almost 6 1/2 by 8 feet. But now he had moved to a Greek Revival house in Farmington, Connecticut, where he had room for it.

Pierre Loeb told Soby that for most people size had not been the primary issue. The difficulty that had turned buyers away had been what Soby later termed the "passage which even the French, usually calm about such matters, found hard to take: the depiction of the young man at the edge of ecstasy reaching over the hem of the girl's hiked-up skirt toward the young girl's genitals.

That scene was a pivotal factor for the young American as well, but in his case it was favorable. He delighted in the shock value. Like Balthus, James Thrall Soby was a young man with a lively sense of humor and a deep pleasure in upsetting the bourgeoisie. He was keyed up by--in his own words--the "young girl being seized by the crotch by a strangely Mongolian-looking young man who has come up behind her, his face taut with easily decipherable excitement." He savored the idea that it might create problems with the U.S. Customs office in Hartford, which was to be its port of entry into the country. Soby had imported many paintings there, and seemed pleased that The Street would bolster his reputation for eccentricity.

When the customs authorities opened the crate containing The Street, however, they simply acknowledged that it was an original work of art and hence duty-free. One official even told Soby that this was the first painting the collector had brought in that the official really liked. Like Balthus, Soby was a keen, and somewhat sardonic, observer of the audience for paintings. It was not lost on him that a work both more realistic and more salacious than other examples of contemporary painting was the biggest hit with someone to whom most recent art was anathema.

Soby had bought Balthus's painting above all because he admired it, but his pleasure was enhanced by the way it confounded its viewers even more than had the rest of his modern paintings in his living room in Farmington. Most of his friends and neighbors were bridge players or golfers for whom even Matisse had been beyond comprehension; the licentiousness of The Street was beyond them.

Off in a Greek Revival house on an elm-lined rural road in a country to which Balthus had not been and which he would never visit, the racy subject matter was therefore having precisely the effect the artist now says he intended.

For he wanted to shock. That, above all, was the motive behind all of his extraordinary subject matter. So Balthus, in hindsight, insists.

That the eroticism or violence might be innate, or that they even exist in his work: to these notions, the creator offered a resounding no. Day after day, wording it in various ways, Balthus reiterated to me that to call his work erotic is to misunderstand it, to see it as violent is to miss the point completely.

Yet however ardent his disclaimers, Balthus's art is blatantly about sexuality and power. In the earlier paintings, those themes are brazen; in his later art, they are sheathed in veils and guises. The vignette in the left-hand corner of The Street--Balthus's generic, Piero-like boy, transfixed in a dream world, lost in reverie, attacking a girl his own age, reaching under the skirt of her gargantuan legs while she reacts by freezing in her own, out-of-it, mannerist mode--is what Balthus's art, and the man himself, are all about. The power and thrill of lust, and a panoply of elegant subterfuges through which to deal with physical desire, has consistently pervaded Balthus's art ever since The Street and those six other paintings, some of them even more blatant than this one, caused such a stir at the Galerie Pierre in 1934.

So although I have had the distinct pleasure of hearing one of the most talented artists of our century, one of the most courtly and erudite citizens of the modern world, elucidate his views as to what is and is not shown in his work, I should believe him no more than when he, calmly and skillfully, lies to me about his heritage and a range of other subjects.

And even if the reason Balthus repeatedly gave me for the salacious subect matter of his early work was that he wished to be deliberately provocative because he knew that the more subtle aspects of the painting would be lost on most people, and that this was his device to get people to pay attention and attract the larger audience, I think that the subject matter is part of a far deeper inner agenda.


Balthus made the case to me that in The Street as in all his other work, he was showing life as it really was. Boys in grade school often lift girls' skirts. They rarely go so far as to actually grab their victims' genitals, but it's what they are thinking of.

He allowed himself to go no further in this commentary, however. He would not consider that the act of raising the hem stems from a wish to embarrass and humiliate and degrade. Nor would he contemplate the idea that, as the painter of the scene, he was one with those teenage boys. Yet in the boy's treatment of the girl in The Street, we may very well be seeing the essence of Balthus's much discussed, lifelong attitude toward women.

The young man is patently ecstatic, while the girl--whom I also see as a partial self-portrait as well as (not inconsistently) the object of his passion--is harder to read. The other seven characters in the painting, technically near this scandalous encounter, are entirely impervious to it. Lust and indifference thus juxtaposed were guaranteed to evoke titillation, discomfort, or a blend of the two.

Balthus would have us believe he painted these various modes of behavior because he wished to entertain; he was young, eager to evoke a reaction. It is a most convenient out. His own emotional necessity--to behave like the malevolent boy while the rest of the world walks by glazed--is equally behind all this.


Without question, Balthus succeeded in his goal of attracting attention to his art. Soby's cohorts Henry-Russell Hitchcock and A. Everett Austin, Jr., reacted like schoolboys. Hitchcock was an architectural historian and champion of the pioneering International Style, Austin the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum and hence the impresario for such modern and startling events as the world premiere of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts. They were hardly unsophisticated. But the two often clowned around in front of The Street in its owner's living room. They liked to stand directly in front of the scandalous passage and assume in their own way the role of the naughty teenagers.

If people like Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Chick Austin cavorted in front of The Street, it should come as no surprise that the owner of the painting soon had serious problems with the reactions of real schoolboys. In the late I930S Soby's adopted son--who had previously been in the custody of the boys mother, the collector's first wife--moved into the house in Farmington where Soby was living with his second wife. Peter was five years old. Soby and his wife were eager to put Peter's life on an even keel, and it didn't help when the boy's friends began to titter wildly over The Street. Neighborhood children carried home tales of the naughty painting at their playmate's house. Their parents began to telephone Soby to ask what on earth these kindergartners were seeing in Soby's living room.

The collector attempted the defense that Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods, on view in the National Gallery in Washington, had equally explicit imagery--even if it was cloaked in mythological dress and the participants took less visible pleasure in their frolicking. But the argument carried little weight in a New England town. Soby later wrote:

The neighborhood clamor didn't subside nor did the number of very small visitors to my living room. Moreover, with chil&ood's instinct for getting right to the point, the kids would gather in front of the "questionable" passage, as though there were nothing else in the large composition worth looking at. I finally decided that it wasn't fair to my small son to have his father thought of as unmoral, if not immoral, and I reluctantly took the picture down.


At first Soby had considered putting a screen in front of The Street so that it would simply be out of view when Peter had friends over. He discussed the possibility with Russell Hitchcock, but every time they tried to work on its design, they simply ended up drinking and laughing in front of the painting. Finally Soby stored The Street in a fireproof vault he had built adjacent to the garage.

Balthus's masterpiece remained out of view for a number of years. It only emerged from its hiding place in the early 1950s when Soby was visited by the Reverend James L. McLane, another of Balthus's American champions. Soby knew that Father McLane had hung several of the artist's most provocative paintings of young girls in his church in one of the poorest sections of Los Angeles. He admired the reverend's courage, and he felt shamed when McLane "bawled [him] out for three hours for being so cowardly as to hide a great painting away in a darkened vault." McLane was unmoved by Soby's explanation that he had done this for his son's sake. The reverend insisted that "the painting is perfectly innocent, and, besides, your son is a child and not supposed to know what great art is. Nor are his friends or his friends' mothers."

Several years later, Soby wished that the Reverend McLane were still alive to defend The Street to the authorities at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Soby had become active as a curator there and was organizing a Balthus exhibition scheduled to open in 1956. It was the first major museum show anywhere of the artist, who at that point still had a limited audience, and whose work had been publicly seen only at infrequent gallery exhibitions in Paris and New York. Soby thought it essential to include The Street in this show; he intended to bequeath the painting to the Modern. But he knew enough about the prevailing attitudes at the museum to realize that Balthus's large canvas was too lurid to be allowed on view.

When Soby was in the process of organizing Balthus's show, he wrote to the artist and explained the problem. He dropped the hint that several restorers had offered to alter the troublesome passage, although of course he would not allow anyone but Balthus himself to touch the picture. In spite of this diplomatic approach, he feared that the mere suggestion of a change would end a friendship that had by that time acquired great meaning for him.

To Soby's astonishment, Balthus wrote back that if the collector would send him the canvas, he would gladly repaint the passage. "When I was young, I wanted to shock. Now it bores me," Balthus wrote. In my visits with him thirty-five years later, Balthus was still uttering precisely the same statement which he remembered practically verbatim: "I wrote one of my rare letters to James Thrall Soby to explain that when I painted this part of my work it was of course a sort of provocative intention. This was when I felt for the first time the need of attracting attention on me, which after that I tried to avoid." With these few words, uttered with a sage's smile, he seemed satisfied that he could sweep the brazen candor of his early work under the rug.

Balthus's statement that he wanted to be provocative, and his admission that he used the imagery to do so, contradicts all of his claims that the subject matter was irrelevant. As astute a person as Balthus can hardly have believed that such imagery would serve his alleged intention of having the visual, formal elements hold center stage in his art. His insistent denial of the weight of his thematic content defies all reason. Surely he knew that this passage in The Street, like Alice's gaping pudenda and the crotch views of his other paintings, would attract the sort of response it evoked in people like Austin and Hitchcock. They, after all, were intellectually at the extreme upper end of his viewing public. Balthus could hardly have painted themes more certain to make people wonder about the painter, the very response he claimed to disparage.

Balthus was tacitly acknowledging that the subject matter of art, the very element he has consistently denigrated, had considerable weight. And the notion that he has always painted in a vacuum--for his own nefarious reasons, unclear even to himself, and with no awareness of the larger audience--is a shibboleth. On the contrary, anyone who once wanted so desperately to shock, and then is willing to repaint a painting to get past the censors and temper its effects, cares deeply about the perception of others. To manipulate and affect the observers of his art has been of paramount importance to him.


That letter which Balthus wrote to James Thrall Soby in June 1956 is now owned by the Museum of Modern Art. The missive is tactful and courtly to a fault. No one could be more considerate and engaging than the man who characterized himself as a former mischief-maker. Because of Balthus's prohibition against printing material from his letters, the document cannot be quoted further. The reader may, however, picture small pages scrolled in neat fountain pen script, addressed from "Chateau de Chassy, par Blismes Nièvre." Dated in French, the letter, except for a few interludes, is written in charming English. Balthus opens with heartfelt thanks to Soby for having lent The Street to an exhibition in France, and the most contrite apologies for not having written sooner. He then explains that he has indeed obliged the collector by changing the gesture of the boy. Balthus allows that this was a difficult task. His problem was that the composition of the picture was based on such a complex and intricate series of mathematical relationships. But he had no trouble with the idea of altering The Street, except for the effect of the revisions on its visual system. To move the angle of the boy's hand meant a lot only because of the geometric issues: the need for parallels and certain juxtapositions and rhythms.

Balthus told Soby that, on the other hand, he was quite happy to revise the painting. He never thought that the primary issue of The Street should be its infamous naughty incident. The artist justifies the image of the groping by explaining that as a youth he believed in scandal. Now, however, he felt scandal to be a worn-out subject, best discarded.

Indeed, precisely as Balthus would have us believe, visual and painterly issues had become--and to a degree always were--his preeminent concern. He was first and foremost a designer and craftsman. On the other hand, the dominating, isolated, secretive teenage boy in The Street--taking his pleasure regardless of its effect on his object of prey, acting in his own private world--shows more about Balthus than he subsequently wanted anyone to see.

Toward the end of the summer in which Balthus agreed to revise the painting, James Soby, his third wife, and Alfred Barr visited the artist at his chateau to see the revision of The Street and to discuss other matters concerning the exhibition at the Modern. In spite of Balthus's letter, Soby was still apprehensive when he arrived at the great stone dwelling near Autun. The collector, in fact, had become afraid that Balthus's possible resentment of the request would have inspired him to paint out the entire canvas. Balthus instantly sensed his visitor's concern. To put Soby at ease, he immediately dragged the large painting into the living room. Soby saw that "the Mongolian boy's hand had been moved very slightly to a less committed position on the young girl's body, though his eyes were tense with the same fever." Not only was the man's hand moved upward, but the extended fingers were bent inward, folded safely over the girl's dress.

Those few days in Chassy were memorable for Balthus's loyal patron. The artist gave him and his wife a tour of the chateau, which had been a hunting lodge. Soby was particularly fascinated by the basement, where enormous hooks hung from the ceiling so that stags, boars, and other game could be suspended for curing. He was highly entertained one evening when everyone dined at the nearby Hotel du Barrage, which is where the Sobys and Barr were staying. With the Italian proprietor, Balthus sang "very long, in fact interminable, duets from various operas. It's difficult to remember which of the two men had the worse and less accurate voice, but neither lacked courage or volume, and they bellowed heartlessly."

Balthus had cause to sing. He was just emerging from a long period of financial struggle. Having scarcely been able to afford the modest rent at Chassy when he had moved to the tumbledown chateau two years earlier, he was now beginning to enjoy sales and recognition that Soby's show would further clinch. His title and longer name were, here and there, beginning to take hold. And he was painting well and living a life of ease that he had not always enjoyed.


Once James Thrall Soby acquired the large canvas in 1936 and brought it home to Connecticut, the audience for Balthus's work grew on that prescient collector's side of the ocean--so much so that the United States, particularly the East Coast, became Balthus's primary center of support for decades to come. To a large degree, Soby was responsible for this, steering museums and fellow collectors to Balthus's work and acquiring further major paintings. The other reason that so many of Balthus's paintings have ended up in America is that, starting in 1938, Pierre Matisse, with his gallery in New York on East Fifty-seventh Street, was Balthus's primary dealer worldwide. Until Matisse's death over fifty years later, they remained closely allied, and as of this writing, Balthus maintains strong ties to Matisse's widow.

The relationship between Balthus and Pierre Matisse may hold a longevity record for an artist-dealer connection. The norm is for artists who do not initially sell well (as was the case when Balthus first showed with Matisse in the late 1930s) to leave their galleries in despair or to get booted, and for successful ones (as Balthus became in the 1960s) to move elsewhere in search of a better deal. Balthus and Pierre Matisse, however, remained faithful to one another. Balthus told me that he considered Matisse an unusual and wonderful man. He felt that Matisse, as the son of an artist, grasped the issues that really mattered to a painter; it was irrelevant that Henri Matisse was someone whose work Balthus did not especially esteem. From Pierre Matisse's point of view, Balthus was often not easy to work with, but he deemed him a masterful painter and had the tenacity to survive the hardships of their relationship. Ultimately Balthus was also a significant moneymaker for Matisse.

In talking with me, however, Balthus always seemed skeptical about this new world from which I hailed. He made me feel like a traveler in a Henry James novel--the sort whose New England background amuses but baffles the inhabitants of a palazzo.

Having declined all previous invitations to visit America, when he did plan a trip there for his 1984 Metropolitan show, he was so put off by the exhibition catalog and checklist that he decided not to go to New York for its opening, although it had been scheduled on his rare birthday that year. He was further upset by the critical attacks on him in the American press once the show was up. Considering how urbane and erudite Balthus was, I found him to be amazingly unaware of American culture in general. He claimed never to have heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald or George Gershwin. On the other hand, he did know the names of the various Hollywood collectors--Billy Wilder as well as Tony Curtis--who owned his work.

Shortly after I arrived in Rossinière on my first visit, Balthus showed me a House & Garden with an article about a luxurious New York apartment in which one of his recent canvases had been hung near an Andy Warhol. He told me when the article had appeared several years earlier, "I was absolutely furious and was going to write Pierre that he should never sell any more paintings to Americans." Balthus said that Pierre Matisse became so ill at just this time that the artist felt he could not make the request, but he had seriously intended to ban all further sales of his work on my side of the Atlantic--that they killed his work.


Yet Balthus always had a weak spot for the American who had had the courage--as well as the funds in the middle of the Depression--to buy The Street. Soby was the rare case of a collector who was also a sage critic. His writings not only helped significantly to establish the audience for Balthus's art but reflected considerable insight. The first of these was an essay Soby wrote for the catalog for Balthus's first Pierre Matisse exhibition in 1938. It was a difficult task to offer perspective on such disarming paintings by an unknown thirty-year-old artist, but Soby was already a respected voice on the American art scene, and his unequivocal support, articulately justified, was persuasive:

Here is a young painter who...must be judged for now as a major artist--perhaps the first one to appear since the generation which produced Picasso, Chirico and Duchamp.... When a painter in his twenties can communicate original ideas with such terrific force, and on such a large scale, as Balthus has done, he must be appraised as a painter who may give direction to a whole epoch in art; he must be accepted or rejected as one would accept or reject a Cézanne or a Picasso, not as one would discover or tolerate a Boudin or a Modigliani.


Soby viewed The Street as the linchpin of this assessment, the ultimate Balthus, both for its charms and for the struggles it reveals and inspires:

The special point about a picture like "La Rue"...is not that it is a large and malignant picture, but that it is almost wholly a new one. There have not been many in modern times: among others, the "Grande Jatte" was one, and before that, the "Raft of the Medusa." To my mind "La Rue" is another.


Two decades later, in his MoMA catalog essay, Soby, again without ever allowing that he was its owner, focused on this painting he was fortunate enough to see all the time, whether in his living room or squirreled away in the vault.

The large picture abandons impressionism for a stylized, monumental and much more solid handling of color and form. The figures have an hypnotic intensity, as though seen in a dream or viewed on a moving-picture film which abruptly and inexplicably has stopped on its sprockets. It seems likely that at this time Balthus was especially impressed by Seurat's ability to freeze contemporary life at a moment of poetic and ageless dignity; the figure of the chef in The Street is closely related to Seurat. The other figures are puppet-like in their sleepwalking irrationality, yet at the same time alive and majestically composed.


In observations that apply to The Street, Albert Camus similarly assessed Balthus's presentation of time in an essay he wrote for Balthus's 1949 exhibition held at Pierre Matisse's.

A painter's style is essentially a certain way of conjugating the natural with the impossible, of presenting that which is perpetually in process of becoming, and of presenting it in an instant which is endless...

Balthus...fixes the emotion and the scene both at once, so precisely that one has the impression of gazing through glass at figures which a kind of spell has turned to stone, not forever but for one-fifth of a second, after which their motion will be resumed. That fifth of a second is still going on as I write: that's the point and then we realize that nature, if we look at it during that instant of silence and stillness, is even stranger than the strange monsters that take shape in men's imagination. What is before us is indeed reality, the most familiar sort of reality. But we learn through Balthus that until now we did not know how to see it, that our homes, our friends, our streets concealed disturbing aspects to which we closed our eyes. We learn, above all, that the most ordinary reality can assume the unfamiliar, remote air, the soft resonance, the muffled mystery of a lost paradise.


The year before Camus wrote that essay, Balthus had designed the sets and costumes for Camus's play L'Etat de siège, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault. Camus admired Balthus tremendously; he eventually bought the artist's 1951 Italian Landscape. One would expect them to have been soul mates. Yet Balthus told me he really did not agree with Camus's commentary. Just as Soby's notion of sleepwalking figures in a hypnotic trance does not line up with the artist's insistence that The Street must be seen as a straightforward celebration of everyday life, Camus's sense of the disturbing and the remote, laments Balthus, has nothing to do with the artist's intentions.

Balthus told me he does not understand the notion of frozen time, only the construction of the picture. There is no "mystery." This was his Paris. Its music was the trafficless silence punctuated only by the street vendors' cries, its forms and people as you see them. These were the good old days: nothing more or less.

Truth. Invention. For Balthus there is no distinction between them.

But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory. In that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with the music of the thirties. It drifts from somewhere far away--a mirage of
sound--a dream music that is both heard and imagined, that seems to be both itself and its own echo; a sound so alluring and so mesmeric that the afternoon is bewitched, maybe haunted, by it. And what is so strange about that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than to its beat. When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell. Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement--as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in
those silent and hypnotic movements. Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.


--Brian Friel, Dancing at Lughnasa


 
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Excerpted from Balthus by Nicholas Fox Weber. Copyright © 1999 by Nicholas Fox Weber. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.