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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Not to Know Me is to Love Me

National Post, 27 November 1999

Book Review
Balthus: A Biography , by Nicholas Fox Weber
Alfred A. Knopf, 656 pages

Balthus : A BiographyBiography is a “flawed genre,” the American journalist Janet Malcolm once argued. It adopts “the pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment,” but these “can never be more than rhetorical ruses.” Readers have now become quite familiar with the fruit of such “insight.” For if objectivity is merely a “pose” rather than a challenge, then why not simply invent dialogues, events, or, as in a controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, entire characters and sources?

Nicholas Fox Weber’s new biography of the enigmatic 91-year-old painter Balthazar Klossowski, known as Balthus, is a brilliant and vexing example of this new biographical nihilism. In January 1991, shortly after Weber (a prolific American writer on modern art) began meeting with the elusive artist at his eighteenth-century chalet in the Swiss Alps, Balthus told him that he wanted Weber’s book to contain no biography. “I responded….” writes Weber, that “I fully understood his stance that his paintings and his life were separate issues,” and that he had no intention “to establish spurious links between his personal history and his work.” Balthus: A Biography is a story of Weber’s betrayal.

If anyone could drive a biographer to despair, it would be Balthus. In the catalogue of his 1968 Tate Gallery retrospective, Balthus recommended that he be introduced to his viewers as “a painter of whom nothing is known.” Weber, to both his credit and shame, disregards this advice. He leads us ably through Balthus’s early life in Paris, Berlin, and Geneva, brushing aside the artist’s carefully woven fictions. He exposes the aristocratic pretensions of Balthus (who insists on the bogus honorific, “Le Comte de Rola”), and demonstrates emphatically—perhaps too emphatically—that the artist’s mother, contrary to his denial, was Jewish.

But Weber’s book is much more than biographical sleuthing. It is also a sensitive, at times exhilarating, analysis of Balthus’s art, which has provided some of the most troubling images of figurative painting this century. He begins with the 12-year-old artist’s first published work—a book of 40 drawings telling the story of the disappearance of a cat, with a preface by none other than Rainer Maria Rilke, the lover of Balthus’s mother. He ends with the nonagenarian’s most recent work, Cat at the Mirror III. Along the way, Weber unpacks what he believes to be a latent sexuality in all Balthus’s paintings, confidently integrating it into his biographical portrait of the artist.

The book’s centrepiece is a chapter-length study of Balthus’s infamous canvas, The Guitar Lesson (1934). Portraying what appears to be the sexual assault of a young girl by her female music teacher, the painting now resides, all but inaccessible to the public, in the New York apartment of the Greek shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos. As recently as the 1980s, it was deemed so obscene that the New York Museum of Modern Art refused to display it.

Weber considers it a map of Balthus’s psychosexual obsessions—resentment and shame over his humble early years, disgrace as a spurned lover, and life-long fascination with young women on the verge of sexual awakening. “Downtrodden by historical circumstance,” writes Weber, “[Balthus’s] response was to dominate the way the music teacher does—and thus avenge himself.”

The author is fearless in his opinions. He claims insights into Balthus’s character and paintings that not even the artist has access to. Some of the dense sexual symbolism he finds in the paintings, Weber admits, may be “entirely inadvertent on Balthus’s part—the result of his having imparted meanings over which he had no more control than the details of a dream.” But who is the one “imparting” these meanings? Is it Balthus, or Weber?

By assigning primary importance to Balthus’s most frankly sexual painting, Weber reveals much about the nature of his investigation. Ambiguities and multiple readings—the profound enigma at the heart of all great art—hold no interest for the author, who considers them mere smoke and mirrors in need of “demystification.” Any artist who has come to be “understood” in the way that Weber seeks to understand Balthus need never be viewed again, for there will be nothing left to discover, nothing more to see. Weber, in short, hopes to “dominate” Balthus in precisely the way he accuses Balthus of wanting to dominate others.

Fortunately for us, he does not succeed, and even seems aware of his failure. He persistently passes off his own opinions as those of someone else—most often “you,” or “the viewer.” “When you stand before the actual canvas,” he writes of one painting, “a strident eroticism is pushed in your face.” Of another he remarks, “One can hardly blame the viewer who can’t get sex off his mind.” And, in one of his most extraordinary passages, he declares: “However, if you, the reader, had wanted to follow Balthus’s own guidelines and consider the artist only according to his dictates, you would have thrown down this book long ago. Since you have not done so, I hope you will be willing to venture further into forbidden territory…” This is appallingly mendacious writing, intended to flatter the reader into voyeuristic complicity.

If you, the reader, are inclined to resist, it might be because of the book’s sour and resentful tone. Unrequited love seems to be the problem. “I realized that I had come to love the man,” he confesses near the end of the book. “This must be how some spouses feel when they are on the verge of divorce but still hopelessly in love with certain sides of their other.” Weber sounds painfully like a spurned lover, and his tell-all book has many of the same attractions and deficiencies of the genre, including an inordinate self-regard.

Of course, this is precisely the problem we might expect from a biography that has abandoned the elusive ideal of objectivity. Without the “rhetorical ruse” of detachment, biography slips inevitably into solipsism. Balthus: A Biography would be a much better book without its companion volume, Nicholas Fox Weber: A Self-Obsession.