Outside convention

Life of an artist

Outside convention

Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.” In 1968, a telegram reached London’s Tate Gallery, which readied itself for the retrospective of Polish-French artist Balthasar Klossowski de Rola. It began with, ‘No biographical details’. The telegram ended with ‘Regards B’.

The telegram was not sent by an art purveyor. Neither was it an art critic’s diktat. The telegram was from the artist himself.

‘B’ was Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, the artist known as Balthus. The man who defied all isms and conventions. The artist who believed that paintings should be seen and not burdened with biographical details. The one who called his self-portrait The King of Cats. The artist who often painted nude prepubescent girls in erotic postures. The man whose funeral was attended by kings and rock stars, where singer-songwriter Bono sang a paean to the artist.

One August morning, on the GoldenPass Classic train from Montreux to Rossinière (Switzerland), where Balthus lived, I was clinging to the artist’s disdain for biographical details. Slumped in a plush seat in the first-class compartment, I did what the artist exhorted: Look at the pictures. There was Nude Before A Mirror, perhaps Balthus’s most famous painting. A naked girl — not a thread on her taut body — barefoot, in front of a large mirror,  holding her wavy hair nape-up with both hands; her face nearly hidden with the raised hands; the wallpaper blue; the mirror framed in brown; a silvery light bathing her into a surreal luminescence.

In 1955, Balthus used oil to paint the girl who seems sculpted to perfection. I flipped the book and found The Guitar Lesson, one of his earliest paintings where a young girl sprawls on the lap of a matronly teacher who has one hand near the girl’s naked crotch and the other holding her hair. This 1934 painting created a scandalous flutter in art corners. I also found the 1937 Girl with a Cat, which was used by Penguin as the cover for the lascivious paperback of Lolita.

More pages. More paintings. I was so engrossed in Balthus’s near-classical style that I forgot to look out of the impeccable window for church spires, meadows and wildflowers popping their heads out of the grassy monotony.

Artist’s abode

As the train hissed closer to Rossinière, a gigantic tortoise shell raised its head out of an alpine village. A few miles — and minutes — later, the brown shell turned into a chalet — Switzerland’s largest chalet and one of Europe’s largest wooden dwellings. This perfect example of Swiss wood-architecture was Balthus’s abode; it was here that he died one cold February day in 2001, on a simple bed, with his wife and daughter holding his hands. But this is not the house that Balthus built.

In 1750, local businessman Jean David Henchoz commissioned his 500 sq-metre dream house consisting 5 floors, 113 windows, a 950-sq-metre tiled roof, and inscriptions and friezes on the wall. Henchoz died young and what was intended to be a cheese emporium (its cellar was meant to hold 650 loaves of cheese in their refining stage) lived as a hotel where greats like Victor Hugo and Alfred Dreyfuss walked in.

One propitious day in 1976, Balthus stopped here for tea, coveted the chalet, bought it, and moved in with his Japanese wife, Ireta Setsuko. Switzerland’s largest chalet became the home of Switzerland’s greatest artist.

I walked up a grassy path with Frederic Delachaux, the director of Pays-d’Enhaut Tourisme, and stood at the locked gate of the chalet. The inscriptions stared at me. There were monstrous beasts and also dainty flowers — almost 2,800 characters, and words picked from religious texts that depicted profound Christian beliefs of Henchoz.

The chalet was closed to public. I could not peep into the austere studio where Balthus’s unfinished paintings still waited for that deft stroke of lilac. For years, somewhere in the boxes lay Balthus’s later polaroids that were a continuum of his obsession with prepubescent children (mainly girls) and cats. I could not meet his wife, who still pottered around the chalet in silk kimonos. Too many cannots.

Glimpses of greatness

But in the tiny alpine village, I saw Balthus in his chapel. The door opened into a huge square black-and-white photograph of the painter on a white wall. Behind a glass pane was his dark-blue painter’s coat that he never washed. In one photograph, he leaned against a pine tree; in another, Richard Gere was whispering something into the painter’s ears. There was a small green-yellow watercolour.

In the garden was an unkempt grave. That’s where Balthus lies. I stood still by his grave. The icy breeze hummed a Mozart. The sky was a canvas — a blue expanse with sequins of cottony clouds.

At Rossinière, I picked up facts about Balthus. But I’ll not betray his wish. I will not share any biographical details. All I can tell you is that the unusual man was born on an unusual date: February 29, 1908. He died 11 days before his 93rd birthday — on February 18, 2001.

That sunny August afternoon, an apple bough lent shade to the unadorned tombstone. That August afternoon, Balthus and I shared the shade, and the Rossinière sky.

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