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vanished splendors

Post #24 • May 26, 2003, 5:20 PM

Book report:
Vanished Splendors
Balthus
Ecco, 2002

There are a lot of reasons not to like Balthus. He was a self-proclaimed aristocrat in a world of expanding democracy, and a tradtionalist in a world of progress. He made paintings of pubescent girls in languid, open-legged poses that suggest that the artist was diddling them. Monarchy, stasis, and pedophilia in one package, wrapped in a film of condescending crankiness.

I’ve always been a big fan. I like cranky people. Unapologetic, backward-looking traditionalists – good ones – pique my curiosity. In the absence of real evidence of incest or corruption of minors, of which there is not a shred, I’m willing to grant him benefit of the doubt. I don’t even mind that he refused to acknowledge some kind of Jewish ancestry, for which there is evidence. Why? Because his paintings are beautiful. George Bernard Shaw once said something to the effect that he could kill a musician in an orchestra for playing a sour note, but he could forgive him for being a bigamist. I can relate, up to a point.

Vanished Splendors is the book Nicholas Fox Weber wanted to write – an intimate portrait of an intense, reclusive artist. Weber, not very far along into a biography of Balthus, was snubbed by the subject. Left with nothing to go on except the paintings themselves, Freudian analysis, and rumors of various peccadilloes, he concluded that Balthus was a monster. Critics smashed Weber’s book to bits.

Here instead we have the word straight from the horse’s mouth, as dictated to Alain Vircondelet. If Balthus was given to making up stories about his life, there is no one here to contradict his account, so not necessarily everything can be taken at face value. It is, however, an accurate rendition of how Balthus claimed to see himself.

It took an enormous amount of courage and single-mindedness for Balthus to reject the 20th Century’s dominant styles and persue his true desire – to enter into what his mentor Rilke called the “crack,” and here we are not talking about that of his model, but a fissure that enters into the world of reality that one can fall into by investigating the world of appearances.

His path is reminiscent of that of Henry Miller. Miller’s earlier work, such as Sexus, has him thinking with his southernmost brain. His prodigious sexual appetite calls the shots in the book as he bonks this woman and that with appalling disregard for their humanity, but all the while he longs for a trascendental life that escapes the horrors of meaningless work, city living, and human depravity, including his own. By the time Miller writes The Colossus of Maroussi, he finds all of this in resplendent Greece. Likewise, Balthus’s scandalous paintings of his niece Frederique and the infamous Guitar Lesson were from an earlier period of his life. As his paintings progress, his models take on a mannerism that makes them too idealized to be lascivious.

So when he says in Vanished Splendors that his young girls are angels, not Lolitas, it isn’t impossible to buy it. True, some of Balthus’s statements about the matter come off as whitewash. But it is easy to imagine a life full of contradictory urges, with one’s carnal passions receding and one’s spiritual aspirations advancing with age. One has to make a decision whether to judge the man based on his finest moments or his basest. Here we have his finest: Balthus as a pious Christian, a devoted husband who encouraged his wife’s talents, and a delighted father.

His disdain for modernity is not as total as one would guess. After going on at length about the glory of Giotto and life in the chalet, he describes his cheer at the installation of a wide-screen television in the parlor and the occasional visits from his friends Richard Gere and Bono. He considered Giacometti, whose works have all of the hallmarks of self-doubt and indeterminacy we associate with modern art, to be “a brother in painting.” What he can’t stand is the speed and shallowness of contemporary life, and he can’t stand them because they contradict the impulses of his painting. One gets the sense that he styled himself as a man of the 19th Century out of inner necessity and devotion to his work, not dandyism. His annoyance about the contemporary art world derives from genuine principles: the importance of reflection, labor, inner life, and humility.

So whatever worth Vanished Splendors has as a factual document, it is inspiring as a statement of one artist’s highest values. They are antiquated values, but they are perennial, andinstructive for an art world nearly devoid of them.

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