Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere

Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere

by Michael Kimmelman

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The chief art critic of "The New York Times" offers engaging, informal profiles of great contemporary artists, recording not only what they chose to look at in various museums but also what they revealed about themselves in the process.  See more details below


The chief art critic of "The New York Times" offers engaging, informal profiles of great contemporary artists, recording not only what they chose to look at in various museums but also what they revealed about themselves in the process.

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Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Series
Product dimensions:
5.59(w) x 9.19(h) x 0.69(d)

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Balthus was born in Paris. His father was an art historian who wrote about Daumier. His mother, Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, known as Baladine, was a painter so close in style to Bonnard that, so the story goes, Bonnard once saw a work by her and asked, "When did I do that?" Balthus recalls Bonnard as "a great friend of my family, and as far back as my memory goes, I see Bonnard. Americans don't understand Bonnard, which is very sad for America because he's probably the greatest painter of the century, and such a wonderful man. The letters between him and Matisse during the war gave me a new view of Matisse, I must say. They are just two old survivors writing to one another. Certainly Bonnard's work was important to me in that it gave me a sense of what painting ought to be. It's difficult to say whether it had a direct influence on my work but it had an influence on my way of looking at things. Vuillard, too. One can say that painting was still alive when those two were alive."

Balthus was thirteen when Mitsou was published: it was his story of a stray tomcat, for which he also drew pen-and-ink illustrations. Despite his claims to abhor all popular culture, since Mitsou he has always had a surreptitious romance with old advertisements and illustrations, from which he sometimes cribs. "But not modern ones," he says. "When you look at older popular art, you find a similarity to Courbet, but in modern illustrations you find nothing at all. What I like are the illustrations that artists call kitsch, from children's books, in which they are keeping the tradition that goes back to great painting. I don't think they're kitsch." I ask if he also admires Delacroix'sillustrations of Shakespeare, because they, in particular, have something of Balthus's intentional expressive awkwardness. "They have been very important for me," he says.

Already there were characteristics in Mitsou that would define Balthus's later art: an imponderable sense of narrative, a strange otherworldliness and a desire for pictorial order. As a boy, Balthus moved to Switzerland and Berlin with his mother and brother, Pierre. His mother, who had separated from his father, had become close to Rilke, who wrote the preface to Mitsou and later dedicated "Narcisse" to Balthus. He also found patrons to help pay for Balthus's travels. From Switzerland it was possible for Balthus to go to Arezzo and Florence to see the great frescoes by Piero della Francesca, Masaccio and Masolino. Works like Balthus's The Street, of 1933, make oblique references to them, and in general in Balthus's art, the combination of stillness, symmetry and powdery, bleached color, like the color of ancient stone, can be linked to those frescoes. I show him a Piero portrait in the Louvre book. "It's true, there is a strong connection," he says.

"But with Masaccio, I feel even more related. Piero I admire enormously. He taught me many things, but I feel nearer to Masaccio and Masolino. I can't really tell you why, except that Piero is too near perfection, so near that he's squashing. However, who can say for certain about such things?

For instance, I made a nude and only afterward did I realize that it had been inspired by a work by Simone Martini. A friend of mine pointed it out to me, although I really wasn't thinking of Simone when I painted it."
They're all Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar." Balthus remembers her warmly: "A very interesting person, very dignified."

Balthus got to know Derain and Miró, too. His portraits of them show the one as rock-solid, the other as tender as a sparrow. "Derain was one of the most extraordinary men I've ever met because he was like a cloud," he says, though this is not quite the image that his stony portrait conjures up. "He'd change every day. He was tremendously amusing. Miró was quite different. He never said a word, and you never knew what he thought. I don't know whether he was intelligent. He was really like a little child, with the astonished expression of a six-year-old. His earlier works I admire, the self-portrait that was like a Spanish primitive, for instance. But then I didn't like what he did very much. Picasso said to him, 'Look here, Miró, at your age, making paintings like this!' "

Like Miró, Balthus was courted by the Surrealists, but the courtship didn't last long. He wasn't the type to join a group, least of all one headed by André Breton. "I couldn't stand him," Balthus sniffs. "Did you know he was the son of a gendarme? My first break with the Surrealists came when they talked of Novalis, and I said, 'None of you know German well enough to understand Novalis and I consider you all uncultured.' And of course that was the end."

Someone else briefly in the Surrealists' orbit, but someone Balthus admired enormously, was Giacometti. The two of them, despite their dissimilar personalities, became joined by their love for the art of the past, their self-critical reluctance to regard a work as finished and their passion to represent reality in art, albeit a reality that each one conceived differently. I notice that Balthus owns a bust by Giacometti. "A woman once went to see him, and he was completely bored by her so he said, 'Sit down, madame, and I will make your portrait.' When I saw it in the studio, I said, 'How beautiful,' and he said I was the first person to think so, so he gave it to me.

"I remember we went to visit him in Stampa once, when his mother was there." Stampa was Giacometti's childhood home in Switzerland, to which he regularly returned. "What was funny was that my parents knew the Giacomettis, so his mother had met me as a child. But this time I came with my wife, and Giacometti's mother asked me if I was also Japanese."

We flip through the Louvre book, past Lorenzetti and Sassetta, Giorgione and Mantegna, all of whom he says, without further comment, that he admires, and I stop on Georges de La Tour's picture of cardplayers, because it is a subject to which Balthus, in his own paintings of cardplayers, has given an especially weird, malevolent spin. He gazes at the La Tour, admiring what he calls its abstraction. It is true that the revival of La Tour's reputation, like Vermeer's, came in the modern era, after hundreds of years of neglect, and had to do with the way his cylindric bodies and geometric forms appealed to tastes attuned to abstraction. But what, I ask, does Balthus mean by abstraction, considering how little regard he always says he has for abstract art? He simply shrugs, so to prod him I mention that the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of Balthus's oldest friends, once told me that he could see a link between La Tour and Léger.

This causes Balthus suddenly to perk up. "Oh, my God! Léger, whom I knew very well, could never have painted this. He was very stupid. You know Gide once said nothing was more stupid than Léger. Most of the people who did abstraction were stupid. Art is a métier," Balthus declares, having worked himself into a lather again. "I don't consider myself an artist. I consider myself a worker. Unfortunately now this idea seems useless, because if you look at modern art you see that now everybody can do everything." He shakes his head in disgust. "And in fact nobody does anything."

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