The first full-scale biography of one of the most elusive and enigmatic painters of our time -- the self-proclaimed Count Balthus Klossowski de Rola -- whose brilliantly rendered, markedly sexualized portraits, especially of young girls, are among the most memorable images in contemporary art.
The story of Balthus's life has been shrouded by contradiction and hearsay, most of it his own invention; over the years he created for himself a persona of mystery, aristocracy, and glamour. Now, in Nicholas Fox Weber's superb biography, Balthus, the man and the artist, stands revealed as never before.
He was born in Paris in 1908 to Polish parents. At age twelve he first stepped into the spotlight with the publication of forty of his drawings illustrating a story about a cat by Rainer Maria Rilke, who was then Balthus's mother's lover and a crucial influence on the young boy. From that moment, Balthus has never been out of the public eye.
In 1934 his first exhibition, in Paris, stunned the art world. The seven canvases drew attention to his extraordinary technique -- a mix of tradition and imagination informed by the work of Piero della Francesca, Courbet, and Joseph Reinhardt, but unique to the twenty-six-year-old artist -- and to their provocative content; one of the paintings, The Guitar Lesson, was so powerful in its sadomasochistic imagery that it was deemed necessary to remove it from public display.
Continuously since then, Balthus's work has provoked both great opprobrium and profound admiration -- as has the artist himself, whether collaborating with Antonin Artaud on his Theater of Cruelty, transforming the Villa Medici into the social center of Fellini's Rome in the 1950s, or competing for the artistic limelight with his friends Picasso and André Derain.
The artist's complexities are clarified and his genius understood in a book that derives its particular immediacy from Weber's long and intense conversations with Balthus -- who never previously consented to discuss his life and work with a biographer -- as well as his interviews with the painter's closest friends, members of his family, and many of the subjects of his controversial canvases.
Weber's critical and human grasp (he acutely analyzes the paintings in terms of both their aesthetic achievement and what they reveal of their maker's psyche), combined with his rich knowledge of Balthus's life and his insight into the ideas and forces that have helped to shape Balthus's work over the past seven decades, gives us a striking, illuminating portrait of one of the most admired and outrageous artists of our time.
A highly regarded art historian (Patron Saints), Weber ingeniously structures his biography of 91-year-old Balthazar Klossowska, or Balthus, by draping his voluminous investigations over facts that emerged during his visit with the famously reclusive painter and his Japanese wife at their elegant Swiss chalet in 1991. A French citizen of Polish ancestry who has claimed descent from Polish nobility, the Romanovs and Lord Byron, Balthus survived a childhood of economic hardship and displacement with the help of his mother's lover, poet Ranier Maria Rilke. In his work, Balthus uses Old Master coloring to depict scenes in canvases whose atmospheric haze and violated figures (many of them highly eroticized adolescents) belie the compositions' sturdy grids. Weber explores Balthus's many influences, from the work of Piero della Francesca to psychoanalytic theory and his brother's fascination with the Marquis de Sade. Again and again, 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. The friction between the two forces Weber to do his own--at times heroic--research. Whether visiting a sex crimes unit in Manhattan, the New York apartment of Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos or an acquaintance from Balthus's days as director of the French Academy in Rome, Weber assiduously records the evidence for his psychosexual view of Balthus's paintings. In the process, Weber does justice to both the artist and his art. If he occasionally adopts a gossipy tone, that's a minor flaw in a book that will remain a splendid account of a complex life and as fine an artist's biography as this season is likely to produce. 16 color plates not seen by PW; 116 b&w illus. First serial to the New Yorker. U.K rights, Weidenfeld nicholson. Reader Subscriptions Book Club selection.