A Biography

By Nicholas Fox Weber

Knopf. 656 pp. $40

Reviewed by Dore Ashton

There are a lot of lines to read between in this curious biography of Balthus, who is still alive and still actively propagating his mythomaniacal version of his own life. Like most other biographers of Balthus, Nicholas Fox Weber tries to resist the artist's feints, not wishing to become hostage, but never quite succeeds in bursting free from the old magician's spell: an understandable situation, since the facts alone of Balthus's life, even without his shameless embellishments, are extraordinary enough.

Balthus's public life as an artist began at the age of 14 when Mitsou, a narrative in pictures, was published with a preface by the renowned poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It happened that Rilke was engaged in a passionate -- as passionate as he was capable of -- love affair with Balthus's mother, Baladine, a painter. Her two sons, Pierre and Balthazar Klossowski, benefited from the poet's infatuation. Rilke lavished attention on them both, but the younger son, whose artistic talents were apparent, drew Rilke into the collaboration that brought the boy to the attention of such helpful connections as Pierre Bonnard, Andre Gide and countless others of Rilke's own admirers.

By the age of 16, Balthus was settled in Paris, supported by one of Rilke's many benefactors and free to train himself as a painter by copying old masters at the Louvre. Weber rightly stresses the importance of Poussin's "Echo and Narcissus," which Balthus carefully copied, and suggests that Ovid's lines "Enchanted by the charms which were his own/ Himself the worshiped and the worshiper" "were an apt prediction of his . . . future life."

At 18, Balthus set out for Italy and the work of Piero della Francesca, whom his father, Erich, also a painter, had admired, and who made an indelible impression on the young painter. Weber mistakenly suggests that Piero was an unfashionable enthusiasm in the late 1920s, but in fact Paolo Uccello and Piero were very much on the minds of many young painters, and Balthus was not that extraordinary in his interest. Yet the author is right to point out throughout the book Balthus's quotations from artists such as Piero, Courbet, Poussin and Gericault, and his strange deformations of their styles.

Balthus's strangeness and his undeniably erotic, often cruel imagery earned him an exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, a favorite haunt of the Surrealists, who had long been affronting good taste and relished the legacy of the Marquis de Sade (whom Pierre Klossowski consecrated in many texts). Balthus was only 26 in 1934, and Pierre Loeb, the gallery's owner, wrote that in the young painter's works "we seem to be watching some strange dream in which everyone is a somnambulist." That strange dream (and dreams were very much in vogue thanks to the Surrealists) attracted many Parisian art-world celebrities, among them Antonin Artaud, who was about to launch his "Theater of Cruelty" and with whom Balthus, always theatrical in his conceptions, soon collaborated. Others drawn to the tall, striking-looking young painter included Andre Derain and Joan Miro, both of whom Balthus portrayed in memorable paintings, and Albert Giacometti, who often joined Balthus in cafes for intense discussions. Giacometti was probably drawn to the same aspects of Balthus's work that inspired Artaud to write of "an inspiration full of violence that is just right for our diseased epoch," since Giacometti himself had embarked on a violent reconsi-deration of his sculpture.

The character of Balthus's work -- its uneasy atmosphere and provocative allusions to adolescent girls -- preoccupies Weber, who again and again in this overlong book seeks to qualify his initial impressions. One of his most illuminating discussions of Balthus's peculiarities is based on a group of drawings produced to illustrate Wuthering Heights. Analyzing both Bronte's novel and Balthus's lifelong fascination with it, Weber remarks: "The machinery of love in Balthus's universe seems to be one of watching and attraction more than consummation. The ultimate goal is supremacy -- far more than tenderness or intimacy." This seems a fair appraisal of Balthus's patent voyeurism and also of his life, which Weber struggles to present objectively but cannot avoid revealing as that of a disingenuous man who repeatedly lied to the author and the world at large in rather unpleasant ways.

One of the most perplexing issues is Balthus's appropriation of a bogus title when, around the age of 40, he began to call himself Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, and simultaneously invented numerous fictions to erase the fact that his mother had been the daughter of a Jew from Pinsk. Balthus's antisemitism was so intense that he seemed to ignore the fact that his biographer, who was living in his chateau for extensive interviews, was himself Jewish. Weber deals manfully with his own conflicts and even tries to absolve Balthus toward the end of the book by charitably saying, "Balthus -- in his paintings as in his life -- is creating a stage play." More recently, Balthus changed the last act by insinuating that he is not only the Count de Rola but also a descendant of the last Polish king -- something that would have amused Pere Ubu!

Unquestionably Balthus is a biographer's nightmare, and Weber's exhaustive research sometimes exhausts the reader. But sometimes his zeal amuses, as for instance when he goes so far as to consult a specialist in Manhattan's district attorney's Sex Crimes Unit about one of Balthus's more unnerving images of a supine female. The expert confirmed that the image looked like a sex-crime murder victim, exsanguinated.

As for Balthus the painter, Weber is convinced of his greatness, despite certain deficiencies (such as Balthus's difficulty in drawing hands), and argues vigorously against his detractors, among whom there are several quite respectable authorities. Guy Davenport, who wrote one of the most brilliant essays on Balthus in his A Balthus Notebook (1989), agrees and believes that Balthus's "awkwardnesses are deliberate." Weber, in discussing Balthus's best-known works in depth (often repetitively, but that, and the excessive length of the book, are the editor's responsibility), plays down the awkwardnesses and bravely faces the painter's ire by declaring that Balthus's oeuvre, despite the artist's insistence that it has nothing to do with psychological motifs, prurience, adolescent fantasies and violence -- all of which have been endlessly discussed a propos of his oeuvre -- is masterly both because of his "content" and because of his old-masterish concerns with composition, light and texture.

Dore Ashton, a professor of art history at the Cooper Union in New York, has written numerous books on 20th-century art.