an interview with Nicholas Fox Weber      
photo of Nicholas Fox Weber

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Balthus by Man Ray, 1933

Rilke, Baladine and Balthus in 1922

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balthus with nicholas fox weber's daughters
Balthus with Nicholas Fox Weber's daughters, Charlotte and Lucy

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How did your relationship with Balthus develop?

Well, I will reveal how extraordinarily naïve or possibly stupid I am. But when I first went to see Balthus, I was overwhelmed. Here was this man whose paintings I thought were fabulous well before I thought about writing him. My wife and I, before we were married, were broke, and we somehow scraped together the money to buy a Balthus drawing. I thought he was a really wonderful artist, and I don't think there are many wonderful artists alive. Here was this myth of the elusive artist, impossible to get to. I wrote him one of those letters that you rewrite fifteen times, and he never answered it. I finally picked up the phone one morning, and just called information for his Swiss village, and got his number. Dialed the number, a voice answered the phone, and I nervously said "Est-ce que je peux parler avec le Comte de Rola?" and the voice on the other end said, "C'est lui-meme!"

What an enormous moment!

It was about five in the morning in Connecticut, and I thought, I don't believe it. But I tried to be quick. We switched to English very rapidly. He told me it was his first language. Before I knew it, I had plans to go there. By the time I got there, I was so excited in some ways. I had now traveled hours by one train from Geneva to Lausanne, and finally on to a small mountain train and to a small alpine village and I was in fantasyland. I'm a skier. I love snow.

An enchanting village where all of the posters are for chocolate and snow.

Yes. I walked through this perfect village with wonderful piles of wood, and the snow is neatly pushed to the side of the road and I stayed in une pension. The next day I went as instructed to his house, but you really can't miss his house. It's like an Alp in the middle of this village. An enormous house, with its 44 rooms. By the time he walked into the room I think I was primed to believe almost anything he said to me. And I did. I was, in my way, seduced by his blend of personal power, magnetism, and intelligence, the authority with which he spoke and the earnestness. My God, if you believe what you're reading in a face, then you believed him. It took my having some distance and doing an awful lot of research to realize that the man was lying outright. I mean fabricating. I think of lying, really skillful lying, as being an adolescent trait. I adore my children but bringing up adolescent children while writing about Balthus, there were moments when I didn't want to think "Your daughter is lying to you when she's thirteen years old." When she says to you, "How could you accuse me of that? I can't believe that you of all people don't trust me," you feel terrible. And if she's conniving enough, you'll believe that, too, and then you realize the next day that it's been a lie. But maybe there are some parents who are listening to me, thinking: "You fool. Couldn't you tell from the beginning that she was lying?"

There's also the notion that you want that very story that you're being presented with.

That's such an important part of it.

With Balthus, perhaps, any of his inventions would be alluring.

Yes, although I must say, that I have a personal problem with the issue of someone who is half-Jewish, and so bent on denying it.

Is Rilke's influence in evidence there?

Rilke apparently also made himself grander than he was. He didn't assume a title, but he assumed a slightly jazzier heritage than he had. There was some ancestry that he beefed up. And then there's this strange thing about Rilke on Balthus's background. Balthus--and I go to this in great detail in the book--simply denied being Jewish.

Though his mother was and they often moved through wartime Europe as a result of it.

He, in fact, is half-Jewish and his grandfather was a cantor. Rilke, in his letters, refers to Balthus'ss Jewishness not only to its difficulties but its awkwardness. Being Jewish in Europe during many parts of this century has not been easy. But Rilke says of Balthus in a letter, in a way that when I think about it, is a little bit obnoxious, "But it's alright that he's Jewish, because he's from a very distinguished Sephardic family."

Yes, going all the way back to some fabulous ancestors at the time of the Romans.

So, I don't know whether this is Rilke's invention to embellish the Jewishness, which in turn Balthus denies.

The nature of it, not itself.

If you're going to be Jewish, you might as well be Sephardic and from a very fancy old family.

And other times his character is so moving in its sincerity.

Yes, I also told you this conflict that I felt when we were discussing Andre Derain. Derain is a painter whose work I think is marvelous, and yet he's a greatly underrated painter. One of the reasons that the world has put him down is because he's treated as if he's a collaborationist.

I think Derain has been mistreated on that issue. My sense is that he made a trip to Germany because he was forced to do so--Picasso also made a trip to Germany--and that Derain was actually trying to obtain freedom for certain Jewish artists, including Leopold Levy whom he roomed with. Balthus agreed with me completely. Balthus, instead of buying into the nasty cliches that Derain was a collaborationist, was on a vigil to establish Derain's honor. When I listened to Balthus on this, I thought, "Oh God, how could you think that Balthus, who is so courageous, so wonderful on this subject in his willingness to take the brave stance, how could you think that he would lie about anything?" I was angry with myself for feeling that on other issues he was a person of not such great moral stature.

There is ever that duality of character.

Yes, friends of mine in Connecticut had in their house a portrait of my friend's mother, a woman named Jane Cooley. [Portrait of Jane Cooley, 1937] In the painting she looks very much like a tweedy West Hartford, Connecticut woman, with her sensible shoes and her sensible, English-style suit, in the thirties, sitting at the edge of the table. Well, first of all, the way that it is painted is utterly fascinating. The colors, the quality of the wooden table, the way the light hits the wood, the way the light hits Mrs. Cooley's hair: everything about it visually engaged me. From the first time I saw that painting, I couldn't take my eyes off of it. Derain used to talk about the recreation of the real world. And indeed it is a recreation, in the sense that it is the real world, but it's taken a very different form. And it's a marvelously painted composition, everything about it is exciting. Then there is something that I certainly couldn't help but be aware of, which is that this rather traditional-looking New England woman is sitting at the edge of the table and there is just something sexy about the painting. The way that the edge of the table hits her body, you begin to think about her physical contact with the table. It is just suggestive. There is something about it. Now, Balthus would say this is my hang-up. I've got a thing for New England women of a certain generation, or something like that. Or, I'm one of those people who sees sex wherever it is. I don't buy that trick. I think that it is painted in a way that is sexy.

I make a jump to a painting also in Hartford, Connecticut, that he did a year later, called A Still Life with Violence, in which there is a knife penetrating a piece of bread. [Still Life, 1937] Balthus claimed to me, it is not called Still Life with Violence, it's just called Still Life. Well, it was once called Still Life with Violence. He told me that the knife is just there as a still life object. I've looked at that knife not just through my eyes, but with all sorts of other people and there's no question, that knife is attacking that piece of bread and there is a broken goblet in that painting, and there is an element of destruction and violence. Balthus has a right to say that he created it and he didn't intend any of those elements, but there's something more there.

Going back to this painting of Mrs. Cooley, I knew her when she was a much older woman. A much heavier woman, a woman with lines all over her face, well weathered, a terrific woman, very outspoken. She described posing for Balthus, and the circumstances of the trip made him sound quite fascinating. She had gone to Paris with her husband on her honeymoon; they had a long trip there. They were a couple with a lot of money. They were in Paris, and Chick Auston, who was the director of the museum in Hartford, had said, "Here's Balthus's address. Look up Balthus, but whatever you do, do not ask him to do your portrait." Because two or three years earlier, he had had to do portraits to make money, but now the word was that he only chose certain people for his portraits and would not take a commission. So, the Cooleys met Balthus and Balthus got one look at Mrs. Cooley, and she told me that he said, "You remind me of my English mistress, I want to do your portrait."

Having determined that they could not get a portrait by Balthus, they had made travel plans that they would go on to Italy. Now that Balthus wanted to do their portrait, they were lucky enough to be able to change their plans, remain in Paris, and she began to sit for Balthus. She said that the pain of the sittings was excruciating. That she had to sit absolutely still, her back erect, at the edge of the table and if she moved so much as half an inch, he was brutal. I don't mean physically brutal, but he...

But he prevented her from moving.

Jane Cooley said that it was physically so uncomfortable and he was so unsympathetic and he wouldn't bring her any water. By the third day, she was just miserable, at the edge of tears. She and her husband both wanted her to pose for Balthus, but it was an ordeal. Finally she allowed that one of the reasons she was so uncomfortable was that she was in the early stages of pregnancy. Somehow--and this is one of those things of which I can only report the facts, I don't know the reason--she thought he would be repulsed. Maybe she felt that the changes to her body in pregnancy would be unwelcome to him. I would sense that she was probably very thin.

Perhaps she worried that her body would change in significant ways over the course of these sittings.

Yes, exactly. Who knew what the issues were? But she didn't want him to know and she thought he would hold it against her in some way. Yet the moment he learned that she was pregnant, he became a saint. He became solicitous and calm: "May I get you some water, Mrs. Cooley?" I mean, I've seen that side of Balthus. No one can be nicer. No one can be genuinely sweeter.

There are conflicting versions from many of the people that sat for Balthus: he was a gem or a monster.

Here this man who had been tyrannical now just became wonderful. Anyway, I knew the painting, and what some friends of Mrs. Cooley's told me was that when Jane brought the painting home, no one thought it looked like her very much. No one was that impressed. Twenty years later, the painting looked just like her.

The Picture of Dorian Gray... How did you discover the birthday letter that Rilke wrote to Balthus to honor his thirteenth birthday in which he offers the secret of a nether world between February 28 and March 1 where his birthday is hidden for three out of four years?

Those letters were published in a French publication called La Fontaine, if I remember correctly, in about the 1930s. It is a typical Balthusian, to use an adjective that I like, situation. They are called Letters to B. and Balthus would claim anonymity, his name doesn't appear with them. He would fear people would read them and then he would turn around to say that they were to him. They've recently been republished in French, in a very beautiful edition with Mitsou.

The letter haunted me throughout the reading of your study.

That's fascinating, because it haunted me also. The whole idea of the invisible moment when you think about the idea of February 29, Balthus's birthday and then you think of the years when it doesn't occur, and the moment between midnight and the start of the new day in the non-leap year. In many ways, it's analogous to so much in the book, in Balthus's life, to the missing cat, because it's something that you feel is there, but isn't there.

He can conjure an experience, but he won't necessarily articulate it.


Throughout the many stages of Balthus's life described in your book, Balthus avoids the question of influence. At one point by saying "One painter painted with a brush, and so did another; so there's an influence!"

Even on the issue of influence, one feels that what matters to Balthus when he's speaking isn't the truth. It's what he feels like saying at a given moment. So, he told Tom Hess, a great art historian, that nothing in Asian art had any influence on his paintings of the nude in front of the mirror. It's the Japanese woman in front of the mirror. [Japanese at a Black Mirror, 1967-76] He told me that, if he had any goal in mind in those paintings, it was to recreate the pose of ukiyo-e, the nineteenth century Japanese prints. So, he said a totally different thing to Tom Hess and to me. But, that's Balthus.

It's like a detective novel, where you've searched and searched for what could be true.

I think I've searched and searched for what could be true, and I've always had a desire to know the facts. And then, having found them out, there's a side of me which thinks, well, so what? Perhaps the most interesting fact is that nothing can be known with certainty, or so little can be known with certainty. And there is such power to invention, and to poetry.

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