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Balthus: A Biography

by Nicholas Fox Weber

ISBN 0679407375 / 9780679407379 / 0-679-40737-5
Publisher Knopf
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

Balthus is as multifaceted and spellbinding as its subject, the 20th-century painter whose canvasses have been likened both to those of the ethereal Piero della Francesca and sadomasochistic erotica. Biographer Nicholas Fox Weber quotes Oscar Wilde when discussing Balthus's most notorious painting, in which a music teacher violently molests her young pupil: "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.... And so Balthus claimed to me time and again. If viewers find The Guitar Lesson ... shocking or titillating, repulsive or seductive, they reveal only their own psyches, not his." Balthus repeatedly insisted on noninterpretive, pre-Freudian, stylistic observation of his paintings--mere studies in light and shadow, form and shape, composition and color--or so he would have Weber (and the reader) believe.

Weber describes his own psychological near-seduction by Balthus's proffered confidences, and his brief, initial inclination to allow the artist to dominate their interviews. Despite Balthus's gift for prevarication--romance on short notice is his specialty--Weber is astute enough to sift through every possible document. He elucidates Balthus's mother's long affair with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke; her Jewish ancestry, which Balthus denied; the atmosphere of religious mockery among the surrealists; Balthus's marriages and affairs and his obsession with pubescent girls. As the book progresses, Weber delves deeply into an analysis of the artist's psyche. In the end, he achieves remarkable, sensitive insights into the nature of Balthus's character and subjects. He patiently builds a case for the theory that even the artist's female adolescent models reflect his secret selves and fantasies, developed in reaction to many kinds of childhood pain and confusion.

Weber secures every important painting within a framework of historical reference, personal psychology, and stylistic influence. With this he demonstrates his uniqueness among biographers of artists--he actually understands painting, including its technical aspects. A hugely pleasurable read, this book compares to Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse in its erudition and richness of detail. --Peggy Moorman [via]