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Weber secures every important painting within a framework of historical reference, personal psychology, and stylistic influence.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
From Publishers Weekly
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 ownAat times heroicAresearch. 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. (Oct.)
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