Balthus with Cybele in 1994 an elderly man and a young girl looking out of a window
Balthus with Cybèle in 1994

Denyse Bertoni writes how she got a rare interview with the artist – whose life and work is celebrated at the Pierre Gianadda Foundation in Martigny, Switzerland.

Balthus hated interviews and didn’t like to talk about his work. The art critic John Russell put it memorably (and now famously), when introducing the Balthus retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1968: ‘Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. And now let’s look at the paintings.’

There’s no better way to ‘look at his paintings’ than to visit the Martigny exhibition of his work, assembled by Jean Clair and Dominique Radrizzani.  But even as you pay homage to the master, you’ll realise that you can’t separate his charismatic personality and his extraordinary life from his canvases; their enigmatic symbolism is a crucial part of the fascination of Balthus’s art. I became infatuated by Balthus when I saw an exhibition of his works in Paris at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in 1966, even though at the time I had no idea who he was. After he chose to withdraw to unusual houses and castles, however, an enthralling aura came to surround him – one just as fascinating as the atmosphere that emanates from his paintings. My curiosity aroused, I resolved to meet Balthus one day, despite my anxiety that I might be disappointed. 

In 1993, taking advantage of a major exhibition in Lausanne, I decided to seek an interview with the painter whose legend had by then caught up with him. He’d been living incognito in Switzerland since 1977, in a splendid old wooden house, ‘Le Grand Chalet’, whose doors he opened reluctantly to strangers. His reputation was that of a cruel personality who enjoyed making his rare visitors feel ill at ease.

The French writer, Hervé Guibert, related wittily in his book L’homme au chapeau rouge how he experienced the malicious side of Balthus and, following his visit to Rossinière, renounced to publish his article. Later, American author, Nicholas Fox Weber, developed a love-hate relationship with Balthus, after spending months in the company of the artist and his circle.  Because at one point of their relationship he felt rejected, his book Balthus: a biography is filled with harsh comments.

I was therefore surprised when Balthus himself answered the phone in a very friendly tone. I found out later that he believed, because of a misspelling of my name, that I was the wife of an ex-teacher of his daughter Harumi. Despite the confusion, I was invited for tea at the Grand Chalet, on condition that I agreed to entertain him in Italian. That was neither his nor my mother tongue but as I was fluent in the language I agreed, excited at the prospect of meeting the master.

As I arrived, his Japanese wife Setsuko introduced me in their living room. The minute I entered their home, I had the strange feeling that I’d stepped into a Balthusian interior: paintings such as his The Dream, The Blanchard Children, Katia Reading, or The Living Room came to mind. The furniture, the colours, the light, the atmosphere and a strange impression of time suspended were all too familiar to me.

Knowing his work thoroughly, every detail reminded me of his paintings. Even the freshly cut white peonies brought in by Setsuko in a Morandi vase are easily identifiable in some of Balthus’s still lifes. When the master arrived in his blue striped kimono, red socks and wooden clogs, my anxiety disappeared and I felt as if I’d always known him.

Balthus was not keen on a banal interview (to him all journalists are paparazzi) and we opted for a friendly conversation instead. Part of the unspoken contract was that we would never mention his work.

I agreed not to use a tape recorder and even abandoned the idea of taking notes. I also put away my camera. There we sat, face to face… in a kind of wonderland. I was in a trance, as if floating in the air. I was even able to anticipate the questions he asked. We were so much on the same wavelength that I knew whatever person he mentioned or had read whatever book he talked about – even though most names and works belonged to the distant past.

I told him I had given birth to two daughters who could have been models for his paintings. He invited them to the Grand Chalet the following summer, and one of them did in fact become his last model. That day, I’d entered another dimension and, in his gracious company, journeyed into Balthus’s wondrous dreamland. It was a voyage that lasted until the day of his funeral, which I attended together with his family and friends on 24 February 2001.