Cover image for Vanished splendors : a memoir
Vanished splendors : a memoir
Balthus, 1908-2001.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Mémoires de Balthus. English
First [U.S.] edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ecco, [2002]

Physical Description:
xxvii, 237 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
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ND553.B23 A2 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The painter Balthus, whose tenacity and cultivated taste for secrecy have enveloped him in an aura of forbidding mystery, wrote this memoir at the end of his long life. A man who for decades opted to "give expression to the world" rather than to "express" himself speaks for the first and only time about his life, family, work, his theory of art and how it intersects with history, literature, and spirituality.

Balthus was born Balthasar Klossowski in 1908 to Polish art historian Erich Klossowski and his wife, the painter Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro. The family lived in Germany, France, and Switzerland. In this memoir Balthus describes his childhood with his mother and her lover -- the poet Rainer Maria Rilke -- who became Balthus's own spiritual mentor. He evokes la vie de boheme in Paris during the 1920s, his friendships with Picasso, Derain, Artaud, Giacometti, Saint-Exup#65533;ry, Ren#65533; Char, Pierre Jean Jouve, and Albert Camus. He discusses his paintings, offers glimpses into his marriage, and expresses his passion for Chinese art and the Swiss chalets and Italian villas that he helped to restore. He recalls touching moments with his beloved daughter Harumi and the inspiration he drew from his cats. Also, in a kind of final lesson, Balthus shares his thoughts about painting and creation, denounces contemporary art as being illusory and deceitful, and talks candidly about his Catholic faith and how it inspired his work.

"We are most charmed by the memoir's ease of expression, as if Balthus were confiding in us, as individuals," writes Joyce Carol Oates in her introduction to Vanished Splendors. "We are brought into a startling intimacy with genius."

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Balthus' provocatively enigmatic and technically brilliant paintings of young girls, cats, mirrors, and theatrical settings intrigue and baffle viewers. Reclusive and silent on the subject of his loaded imagery, Balthus (1908^-2001), a Polish count ensconced in a Swiss Alps chalet with his beloved Japanese countess and their daughter, was the Salinger of the art world, allowing only outsiders into his rarefied realm late in life when his eyesight was failing. It was then that he decided to dictate his memoir, a transporting series of poetic illuminations of his belief in painting as a spiritual pursuit. Resoundingly introduced by Joyce Carol Oates, Balthus' musings flow back and forth in time as he pays tribute to his "masters" --Piero della Francesca, Delacroix, and poet Rainer Maria Rilke (his mother's lover)--and attests to his devotion to light, beauty, solitude, and Catholicism. The young girls he painted are not erotic, the high-minded painter insists, but angelic. Certainly Balthus is, as Oates writes, "one of the great originals" of twentieth-century art, and undoubtedly one of his most enthralling works of art is himself. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Before he died late last year at 92, Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, commonly known by his painterly name of Balthus, dictated a disparate collection of brief reminiscences and aphorisms to French journalist Vircondelet, who shaped them into this unusual but evocative memoir. Following a 15-page introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, the text is organized into 107 anecdotes and encounters, ranging in length from a few sentences to three pages of double-spaced type, with two sections of illustrations (not seen by PW). Vircondelet weaves together the disparate elements of the artist's memories, descriptions of process, art historical discourses and statements of religious devotion into a loosely interconnected whole that probes just a few themes with ever-greater depth and feeling. The painter introduces the subject of eroticized adolescent girls early on and returns to it repeatedly, rejecting the obvious sexual interpretation of his subject and insisting on his attention to a model's "slow transformation from an angelic state to that of a young girl." In the context of this volume, which details devout Catholicism and a consuming interest in depicting spirit beneath surfaces, this explanation is plausible if not altogether convincing. Elsewhere, Balthus describes his love of early Renaissance painting, and his interest in absorbing the work of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca; he insists, with respect to his own work, "I give no tyrannical orders, but let the painting make itself. The hand receives indications and serves as a humble and faithful tool in attaining self-asserting beauty." He details the rituals of his daily life in Switzerland (managed by his wife, Countess Setsuko) as he continues to paint into old age. This great painter's candid immediacy in bringing to life encounters with the beautiful, famous, talented and with his own genius will have art junkies thoroughly hooked. (Dec. 6) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Anyone looking for a clear, chronological account of the life of French painter Balthus (1908-2001) should not turn to these memoirs, which were dictated to Vircondelet (Duras) during Balthus's last years. Here, Balthus describes the various episodes of his long life in brief, often hazy vignettes. As he is one of the more secretive artists of the confessional 20th century, he reveals little that is new. Ever defensive about the interpretation of his work (especially his representations of young girls), Balthus tells us again and again just to look at the works themselves. In recounting his early life with his mother, he credits her lover, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, for his early formation as an artist, and he rarely resorts to mere gossip while reminiscing about life in Paris during the 1920s among such figures as Picasso, Giacometti, and Camus. Though he speaks little of his first marriage and children, Balthus describes in loving detail his later life with wife Setsuko and daughter Haromi. Nicholas Weber's Balthus is recommended for those in search of a less impressionistic rendition of the painter. An intriguing source document for larger collections of contemporary art.-Martin R. Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



One must learn to watch for the light; its change of direction, vanishing, and transitions. Start to learn about the light's condition in the morning, after breakfast and reading the mail. This is one way to know if you will paint today, if the progress into the painting's mystery will be intense. Also, if the light in the studio will be good for penetrating inside. Nothing has changed at Rossinière. It's like a real village. I spent my whole childhood facing these Alps. Facing the mournful brown mass of Beatenberg's fir trees, against the snow's immaculate whiteness. Basically, we came here because of my nostalgia for the mountains. Rossinière helps me to move forward, to paint. That's what painting's about. I can almost say without exaggeration, that's all that it's about. There's a kind of inherent peace here. Everything incites us to be silent: powerful peaks and weighty snow enveloping us in white heaviness; simple, friendly chalets placed on mountain pastures; jingling cowbells; a punctual little railway snaking along the mountainside. So, let's check the state of the light. The coming day will help the painting advance, the one that has been in progress for so long. Perhaps a single touch of color, after long meditation in front of the canvas. Just that. And the hope of conquering the mystery. Chapter Two The studio is a place for work. Indeed, for labor. It's a professional, essential place. I collect myself here, in this place of illumination. I recall Giacometti's studio. Magical, crowded with objects, materials, papers, and the general impression of being close to secrets. I feel much admiration, respect, and affection for Giacometti. He was a brother, a friend. That's why I keep a photograph of him here. I don't know who took it or where it comes from, but this way I work in Alberto's shadow, under his benevolent, meaningful gaze. Today's painters must be told that everything plays out in the studio, in the fullness of time. I love the hours spent looking at the canvas, meditating in front of it. Hours which are incomparable in their silence. In wintertime, the heavy stove snores. Familiar studio noises. The pigments mixed by Setsuko, the rubbing of brush on canvas, and everything returns to silence. The secret entry of forms onto the canvas is prepared, with barely sketched-in changes that topple the painting's subject into something vast and unknown. The tutelary image of the peaks appears through the studio's enormous window. From the Montecalvello castle that I own near Viterbo, at the back of the landscape, Monte Cimino can be seen with its pathways through black fir trees, clutched to the mountainside. The same story unfolds both here and there, of power and mystery. Like a world receptive to its own darkness, where I know one must linger in order to attain them. ]Ch2 One must know how to tame and acclimatize time, to extract meaning from it. Arriving at a possible revelation through the time that is devoted to a canvas. To live in hope of finding it, with that frame of mind and attitude. My work is always done under the influence of spirituality. That's why I expect so much from prayer. It invites you to follow the right way. I am an ardent Catholic. Painting is a means of acceding to God's mystery, of extracting some radiance from His Kingdom, of making it possible to capture a shared light. This is not a vain desire. A humble one, rather. That's why I love Italy. When I first visited it as a young man of fifteen or seventeen, I immediately loved the country for the people's kindness and its tender landscapes. I've always considered Italy an enchanted land. Infused with spirit. A painting greets our eyes from every window at Montecalvello. A painting is the same thing as a prayer: an innocence that is finally grasped, a moment torn from the disaster of passing time. It is immortality captured. I have the reputation of taking perhaps a dozen years to complete a painting. I know when it's finished. That is, when it's accomplished. When no further touch or trace of color will happen to correct a world that has finally been attained, a secret space finally perceived. So ends the plentiful prayer offered silently in the studio. So ends the silent contemplation. An idea of beauty has been reached. Chapter Four I often insist on the necessity of prayer. To paint as one prays. By doing so, to accede to silence and what is invisible in the world. I am not sure of being followed or understood in this statement, given that a majority of morons make so-called contemporary art, artists who know nothing about painting. But that doesn't matter. Painting has always taken care of itself. In order to reach it even slightly, I'd say it must be ritually seized. To snatch what it can offer as a form of grace. I must employ religious vocabulary as the most apt and closest to what I mean. To join with what is essential in this sacred world through a humble, modest availability that is also presented as an offering. Painting must always occur in this state of deprivation. Fleeing worldly currents, facilities, and vertigos. My life began in the deepest poverty, with demands I had placed upon myself. I had that sort of will. I recall my solitary days in the rue de Furstenberg studio. I knew Picasso and Braque, and saw them often. They had a great liking for me. For the atypical young man I was, different, bohemian, and savage. Picasso paid me a visit. He told me: "You're the only painter of your generation who interests me. The others try to make Picassos. You never do." The studio was perched high on the sixth floor. You had to want to visit me. It was a strange place, where I lived far from the world, immersed in my own painting. I think I've always lived that way. In the same existence, and yes, in the apparent bareness of today. I am stretched out on the meridional line, along the chalet's windows that receive the four o'clock sunlight. My eyesight does not always permit me to make out the landscape. The condition of light is enough to satisfy me. This snow-augmented transparency, a dazzling apparition. To retranscribe its passing. Excerpted from Vanished Splendors by Balthus Copyright © 2002 by HarperCollins Publishers Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.