An Old Man's Folly
I can’t talk about my own work. I never do. I’m a religious painter.
An old man sits somewhat uncomfortably in what appears to be a comfortable chair. Perhaps senescence makes all things uncomfortable. The man is gaunt and frail. His face is wizened; he has sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. He puffs languorously at a cigarette. His wife, a small Japanese woman, brings a pot of paint to him. He remarks, in his whisper of a groaning voice, that it requires a bit of oil. She brings the oil to him and kneels before him. She holds the pot with both hands as he prepares to pour a drop of oil into it. It takes an excruciatingly long time. Her gesture is that of a supplicant. It is an offering to a high priest of art. Everything here is ceremony. The old man is the object of veneration and awe.
So opens Damian Pettigrew’s award-winning 1996 film Balthus Through the Looking Glass and the adulation evinced by Balthus’s wife pervades the entirety of this adoring documentary. Indeed the film adores its subject to the point that the entire project threatens to become rather overly saccharine. Of course, in 1996 Balthus (born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola in 1908) was 88 years old and far past his prime as an artist. He seemed to be near death and perhaps it was hard or would have been considered poor taste to cast too harsh a light on the man. (Remarkably, given his outrageous smoking habit for an octogenarian and the obvious frailty of his health, he lived another five years, dying on 18 February 2001.) Nevertheless, the film—I hesitate to even call it a documentary—abandons criticism for adulation, neglects a consideration of his work in favor of an overblown romance, and eschews commentary by replacing it with atmosphere.
That Balthus should be treated with such reserve should come as something of a surprise given the artist’s output. His 1934 gallery debut featured five large paintings, all of which created something of a scandal among critics and viewers. Indeed some of Balthus’s most infamous canvases come from that exhibition. Alice depicts an adult whose body is already beginning to show hints of the passing of time in the marks on her thighs, the sagging of her overly full exposed breast, and the blankness of her stare as she combs her hair. The documentary fails to mention this painting altogether, but it did not lack material on this work as is demonstrated by one of the extras included on the DVD. Three Baltusian Lessons is a set of three interviews in which a painter and two critics (all three are talking heads from the main film) each discuss specific works by Balthus. This footage looks to have been shot at the same time (although some may have been filmed later) and indeed snippets from the interviews were used in the film. However, whereas the film loses itself in soft focus, the interviews carefully, but still quite respectfully, probe the works in order to reveal their themes—primarily the obsession with adolescent sexuality that came to dominate Balthus’s work after Alice. If anything, these interviews bear witness to the fact that the film could have gone deeper without in any way condemning its subject.
The Street, perhaps Balthus’s first masterpiece, depicts characters seemingly inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Fra Fillipo Lippi who wander aimlessly about a city street. A young girl beats a ball with a stick. A workingman carries a plank of wood. A woman carries a strangely adult-looking child. A young man comes up behind a young girl, reaches around her, and cups her vaginal area. This latter aspect of the painting was considered so disturbing that dealers prevailed upon Balthus to alter the painting years after its completion so that the hand now simply grabs the woman’s leg. Yet, Pettigrew’s film still seems to find the gesture to be too much. They show The Street but they only reveal the entire canvas for a brief moment and then focus in on various areas of the painting-pretty much every area except that which contains the offending hand. There is no mention of the alterations. Indeed, Balthus only mentions in passing (and without reference to The Street) that the fastest way to become famous at that time was to create a scandal. Then the matter is dropped.
The painting from that first gallery show that was considered the most appalling, however, was The Guitar Lesson, a painting that, unlike the others, remains fairly shocking to this day. It features a young girl suspended backwards over the knees of her female guitar instructor. The instructor pulls at the young girl’s hair with one hand while the other moves toward her exposed vagina. The instructor is stern, one breast bared as the student pulls at her blouse, her nipple is hard with arousal. The young girl struggles but her face remains strangely dispassionate, her uncomfortable posture a perversion of a pietà. The painting is not shown in the main film, only a very incomplete sketch appears. It is, however, discussed in some depth in the Three Balthusian Lessons, although bizarrely the commentator, critic Jean Clair, insists that Balthus has here taken a “profane and licentious subject” and raised it toward the sacred. Now while I would propose a nearly diametrically opposed interpretation of the painting, at least in this film there is some real interpretive discussion of the work—something that simply does not occur in Through the Looking Glass.
Instead the main film goes to severe lengths to avoid any hint of controversy. It mentions the romantic relationship Balthus’s mother shared with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but it neglects to mention that this was after Balthus’s birth. Indeed the critic Jean Leymarie claims that the mother did “the best she could” in difficult circumstances when it is rather clear from biographies and her own letters that Balthus’s mother treated her children alternately as playmates or nuisances. The interviews with his two grown sons pass over any unpleasantness other than a brief hint that he frightened them out of becoming painters. When Balthus mentions meeting his second wife, he immediately shuts down the conversation, claiming that he wants to avoid the personal. All of this would be just fine if the film at least attempted to give one a sense of the development of the work. But it fails to do so.
I cannot help but believe that a film that bills itself as a documentary of an artist ought either to give the viewer a clear sense of the biography of that artist or, better still, a serious understanding of the work, its critical reception (then and now), and some interpretive discussion. Certainly it was always Balthus’s pose that he was painting the angelic and that he refused to discuss his work (as evidenced by the quotation used as the epigraph to this review), but a documentary ought not to shy away from such discussions. As an alternative, Balthus Through the Looking Glass claims to show us his working process. However, he does precious little in the way of work throughout the film and the painting that he is working on is—to be frank—derivative of his better work, a sign of decline, an old man’s folly. The film does all that it can to remain reverent, adulatory, and discreet but it ends by becoming sycophantic, sanitized, and dull.