A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Balthus, Helen & A Hole In The Ground
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On Tuesday, February 20, 2001 I was profoundly affected by a little picture on the top right of the Living Arts section of the New York Times. I discovered a man the day he died.

In the early 60s I was studying engineering at the University of the Americas in Mexico City. I was having problems diferentiating among resistance, capacitance and inductance. I was no better at strength of materials. Engineering was not to be my career. I spent most of my time drinking strong coffee with my painter (very bohemian) friend Robert Hijar whose parents worked for the CIA. Robert had loads of girlfriends who seemed to spend days (and nights) with him in studios and lofts. They were not interested in my talk of slide rules and Brownian movement. I could not ride Robert's artistic coat tails. I was completely ignorant on all things art. A friend of Robert's asked me once, "Have you heard Carmina Burana?" I innocently and stupidly replied, "No, who's she?" With Robert we went to baroque concerts in old Mexico City churches and museums or we listened to avant-garde music or jazz at the Benjamin Franklin Library. I learned to love the smell of paint at the large studio at the university where Robert painted. I began to appreciate art. I even met his teacher Gunther Gerzso. It was Robert who taught me to develop and print film. I owe him my artistic life as well as my profession.

But in spite of Robert my comprehension of art history has been spotty in many places. On that Tuesday, February 20, 2001 Balthus struck deep in my brain and became an inspiration. I had no previous knowledge of him but I made up for lost time.

I cut out the article called Giuliani, Meet Balthus: Trying to Root Out 'Obscenity'. From that point on I have read everything I could get my hands on about the mysterious count who was no count. I bought his books, when I could find them, as many bookstores refused to carry them. I read about his infamous 1934 painting The Guitar Lesson which had not been exhibited or seen by anyone for years. As you can see here the internet cut to the chase and made it instantly viewable.

I told my model friend Helen and she was interested in doing some b+w approximations of some of Balthus's paintings. We chose the Marble Arch Hotel as our headquarters for the session.

Much has been said about Balthus's choice of models. Fortunately Helen was over 30 so there were no young girl undertones in our photo sessions. Of these undertones I am reading with interest. Yesterday I found Vanished Splendors - A Memoir - Balthus As told to Alain Vircondelet as a used but pristine first edition at Tanglewood Books. For a couple of years before Balthus died in 2001 his friend had chats with him which were painstakinly recorded. The book is a long (made up of short little chapters) look into the mind of this remarkable painter. Here is Chapter 10

No one thinks about what painting really is, a skill like that of a laborer or farmer. It's like makaing a hole in the ground. A certain physical effort is needed in relation to the goal one sets for oneself. It is a discernment of secrets and illegible, deep, and distant paths that are timeless.

In this sense modern painting has failed. I knew Mondrian well, and miss what he depicted early on, some fine trees for example. He looked at nature and knew how to paint it. And then one day he fell into abstraction. On a lovely day toward evening, when the light was barely starting to fade, I went to see him with Giacometti. Alberto and I looked at the magnificence happening outside the window, a setting of twilight glow. Mondrian pulled the shades, saying he didn't want to see it anymore. I always regretted his transformation and upheaval.

Later Compositions of modern art were assembled by pseudo-intellectuals who neglected nature, and became blind to it. That's why I always fiercely relied on my own resources and the notion that painting is, above all, a technique, like sawing wood, or making a hole somewhere, in a wall or the ground.

Marble Arch
Marble Arch 2
Marble Arch 3
Marble Arch 4
Marble Arch 5

And One More


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