The artist must not become a storyteller (Balthus)

…the artist must not become a storyteller. The anecdote should not exist in painting. A picture or subject imposes itself, and it alone knows how profound and vertiginous it is. Nothing happens in a picture, it simply is; it exists by essence or does not exist at all. Baudelaire said a poem is there before it is there. Otherwise, it would be akin to something narrative, something inflected, willed into being by the artist. A picture or poem escapes these contingencies, with terrifying freedom and fiercely self-sufficient violence. In this sense, the artists is a mere link in a chain that began long ago. At Lascaux, for example, and even before Lascaux. There is no hierarchy, and Chardin is not better than Lascaux. All these creative connections belong to the same earthly song, from the ancient source of the world that I know nothing about, but which sends me a few messages by flashes of sun—or starlight. The artist constantly seeks to rediscover the illuminating fire, the hearth where sparks are made.

From Balthus’ memoir Vanished Splendors.

Writing in the Ellipses

Balthus--The Living Room
Balthus–The Living Room

Flipping through Balthus‘s digressive, discursive, elliptical memoir Vanished Splendors, I came across this notation:

I deeply believe in the genius of painting, which parallels that of childhood. I’ve used painting as a language without really having decided to do so, because it suits me better than writing. Writing tries to be too explicit and go directly to meaning. That’s why I could never be a writer like many of my friends. Some aspects of my life might be clarified by the present short texts, similar to letters. . . . For me, writing can only be in the ellipses, where I express myself; painting conveys this magnificently, sometimes unbeknownst to the painter himself.

Elsewhere, Balthus lists the writers and texts he loves, and gives us (what I believe to be) a great definition for reading:

I often paint young girls who are reading. It’s surely because I saw the act of reading as a way to enter life’s deeper secrets. Reading is the great means of access to myths. Green, Gracq, Char, Jouve, Michaux, and Artuad were frequent passageways, as well as the great holy writings of the Bible and initiates like Dante, Rilke, the Pléiade poets, the great Chinese writers, the mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, not to mention Carroll, the pure German poet Ludwig Tieck, and Indian epics. All these texts and authors were landmarks in my life, and gave me another dimension of time to which I soon felt myself summoned. My young girls who read in dreaming poses are escaping from fleeting, harmful time . . . Fixing them in the act of reading or dreaming prolongs a privileged, splendid, and magic glimpsed-at time. A suddenly opened curtain sheds light from a window and is seen only by those who know how. Thus a book is a key to open a mysterious trunk containing childhood scents. .

Balthus--Girl with Cat
Balthus--Girl with Cat

But, my favorite lines in the book come at the end of the following passage:

Painting is something both embodied and spiritualized. It’s a way of attaining the soul through the body. . . . Being too cerebral and jokey can obstruct an artisan’s manual labor, and impede the ascent to the soul. Believing that my young girls are perversely erotic is to remain on the level of material things. It means understanding nothing about the innocence of adolescent languor, and the truth of childhood.

Exactly. Whenever I look at Girl with Cat, I think, man, that’s not perversely erotic at all…that’s just the innocence of adolescent languor–the real truth of childhood, actually. Nice try, Count Balthasar.