Despite their idiosyncratic characters, the close contemporaries Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and Balthazar (Balthus) Klossowski (1908-2001) had a surprisingly similar background, life, character, art and career. In fact, both author and painter were exceptionally handsome, with elegant manners and regal demeanor, and had sophisticated wit, comic irony, perverse ideas and lubricious work.
Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg. His father, who belonged to the Russian nobility, was a Liberal lawyer, statesman and writer, and a member of Alexander Kerensky’s doomed cabinet in March 1917. In the days before the Revolution the wealthy family took many holidays in Europe, and had fifty full-time servants in their St. Petersburg mansion and their country estate fifty miles from the capital.
Balthus also had a cosmopolitan Slavic background. His maternal grandfather Abraham Spiro, born in Russia, was a Jewish cantor and two of his thirteen children became opera singers. (Nabokov’s wife was Jewish and his son Dmitri became an opera singer in Milan.) Balthus’ Russian-Jewish mother was born in Breslau, East Prussia, now Wroclaw, Poland. A professional artist, she used the name of Baladine, which means dancer and whose first three letters echo Balthus. His Polish-Catholic father, also born in Breslau where he met and married his wife, was an art historian.
Balthus was born in Paris and, like Nabokov, moved frequently throughout his life to Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy and back to Switzerland. Both were able to work anywhere. During his boyhood and teenaged years Balthus’ talent was nourished and promoted by the distinguished Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. After Balthus’ parents separated, Rilke became his surrogate father and his mother’s lover. Balthus’ biographer Nicholas Fox Weber writes, “Balthus, a French citizen at birth, is from a Polish family, found Japan in many ways to be his spiritual home, Italy his source of inspiration, and Switzerland his refuge.”
Nabokov and Balthus had an idyllic but fatally disrupted childhood. Taught by a British nanny, they were multi-lingual with English as their first language. Nabokov knew Russian, French and German; Balthus surpassed him with a knowledge of Latin, Polish, French, German, Italian, Japanese and some Arabic. Both men were forced into exile during the chaos of World War I. In 1914 Balthus’ father, a German citizen, had to move his family from Paris to Berlin and lost all his possessions. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 he also lost all his money, which had been invested in Russian railways, and was reduced to humiliating poverty.
Nabokov’s uncle left him a few million dollars and a 2,000-acre estate. He lost it all when his family was forced to leave Russia and they escaped by ship from the Crimea in 1919. After the cataclysmic Revolution had completely obliterated his stable and idealized world, Nabokov began stepping westward to Cambridge University (1919-22), Berlin (1922-37), Paris (1937-40) and America in 1940.
Though Nabokov and Balthus moved in different circles and never met, they lived at the same time and for several years in Berlin and in Paris. Accustomed to great wealth, both were desperately poor in postwar Berlin, disliked Germany and the Germans, and did not participate in the flowering of Weimar culture in the 1920s. Nabokov lived in furnished rooms, wrote novels in Russian for a limited audience of Russian émigrés, and survived by giving lessons in English and tennis. In March 1922 his father, who’d lost his political influence in exile, was assassinated in Berlin by czarist anarchists. Three months later, during wild inflation and a continuing wave of terror, the German finance minister Walter Rathenau was assassinated in an attempt to provoke a civil war.
In 1937 Nabokov, his wife Vera and three-year-old son Dmitri (born in Berlin) moved to Paris. In May 1940, as the German army advanced toward the city, they managed to board the last ship sailing from St. Nazaire to the safety of America. This narrow escape by sea reprised his flight from the Crimea and voyage to Europe in 1919. Even when teaching at Cornell University, Nabokov continued to move around constantly. He rented a different house every year and hunted butterflies in the Rocky Mountains every summer.
Balthus served in the French artillery in Fez and Kenitra, on the west coast of Morocco, during 1930-31. When World War II broke out in September 1939 he was mobilized. He served near Saarbrücken in Alsace, and had to clear the battlefield of mutilated and dead bodies. After several weeks he suffered a leg injury from an explosion down a mine, had a nervous breakdown and received a medical discharge. He recuperated in Switzerland and returned to Paris in March 1940. In June, a month after Nabokov escaped from France, Balthus fled from Paris when the Germans occupied the city, which echoed his flight from Paris to Berlin with his German-born parents in 1914. Though Nabokov and Balthus experienced the horrors of the Russian Revolution and two world wars, including agonizing exile, and saw their ancestral countries ravaged and nearly destroyed, they spent a safe war in America and in Switzerland, and eliminated politics from their art.
Balthus and Nabokov created dramatic narratives that transformed their ideas and emotions into paint on canvas and words on paper. During the 1930s Depression and the conservative Eisenhower 1950s, they imposed their enchanted yet melancholy vision on the world, and made people see things they would rather not recognize or prefer to hide. They craved privacy and disliked public disclosures, but gave many interviews that carefully constructed their aristocratic, mysterious and glamorous public image. Both were supposedly hostile to biography but cooperated with biographers—Nabokov with Brian Boyd, Balthus with Nicholas Fox Weber—whom they thought they could control. Balthus’ hospitable help came with a generous serving of lies that Weber had to investigate and disprove. Their fascinating lives, in fact, aroused great interest and sent people back to their art.
Their precise and exact work portrayed violation and disaster—with powerful males, captive but crafty females—and was always tantalizing. The tone of their art was both ambiguous and disturbing, mischievous and seductive. They liked to conceal, disguise and dissemble, and throw curious critics off the scent. Nabokov loved puns, puzzles, cryptic and often obscene allusions, and anagrams such as Vivian Darkbloom for his own name. He even enthusiastically praised V. Sirin, the pseudonym he used for the Russian novels, in his autobiography Speak, Memory
Both men were exceptionally intelligent, charming and talented. Nabokov, more of a loner and ensconced with his family, quarreled with Edmund Wilson, his only close friend, about Nabokov’s all-too-literal translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin
. Balthus, an amiable genius and prima donna, had an insatiable appetite for admiration. He loved to be entertained and his favorite word for congenial friends was “amusing.” After Rilke’s death in 1926, Balthus became close to many leading writers and artists in France: André Gide, Antonin Artaud and Albert Camus; André Derain, Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti. Picasso bought his painting The Children
(1937) in 1941, and Balthus was revered by his fellow-realist Lucian Freud.
Both Balthus and Nabokov were secretive and, when they could afford it, maintained tight control of the world around them. Each made a sudden transition from relative obscurity to an exalted existence. André Malraux, the minister of culture, appointed Balthus director of the French Academy in the splendid Villa Medici in Rome, where he reigned from 1961 to 1977. After the stupendous success of Lolita
made Nabokov rich and famous, he left teaching at Cornell and moved to a luxurious suite in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland in exactly the same years: 1961 to 1977. Though he had no moat and drawbridge, he was content to reside in the palatial hotel, comfortably attended by a cadre of obliging servants. Balthus would have tried to buy the place. Their residences in Italy and Switzerland recreated the grand life they had lost in war and revolution. Nabokov, a real aristocrat, was treated like royalty by a humble visiting scholar who recalled, “I was received by Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera in the Montreux Palace Hotel.” Balthus, a pretentious aristocrat, puffed himself up by adopting a bogus title, the Comte de Rola.
The self-educated Balthus believed that university titles were a sham, but that his sham title was real. Denying his Jewish heritage and making anti-Semitic remarks to cover his tracks, he created a fantasy lineage that was sometimes Scottish-Byronic, sometimes Russian-Czarist. Weber notes that Balthus’ paternal Polish ancestors (like those of Joseph Conrad) belonged to a “huge, unwieldy landed class that was a lesser rank of nobility called the szlachta
… . Though seventy-three families bear the Rola coat of arms, they never held a title.” On this shaky foundation Balthus awarded himself the title of Comte de Rola. In any case, if such a title had actually existed, it would have belonged to his older brother.
Two other sources may have inspired Balthus’ title. His first wife, Antoinette de Watteville (with whom he remained on good terms), lived in Rolle
on the northwest shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, for the last decades of her life. More significantly, Balthus found the title and subject of Henri Gervex’s erotic and notorious painting, Rolla
(1878, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) extremely attractive. This picture was inspired by Alfred de Musset’s poem of that name (1833), which rejects Christian repression and celebrates the delights of the flesh, the woman in her “garb of pure and spotless youth” who “found again her long lost juvenility.”
Like François Boucher’s Mademoiselle O'Murphy
(1751), Gervex portrays a gorgeous, pearly-skinned, post-coital nude spread out on a sumptuous canopied silken bed. She has one leg raised and bent, the other dropping off the side of the bed, and the sheet barely covering her pudenda. Her hair is tangled, her eyes closed. Her jewelry lies on the bedside table, and she’s carelessly thrown her red bodice and lingerie on the floor next to the bed. A self-portrait of the artist, tall and slender with angular features and dark eyes, dressed in dark trousers and white shirt open at the neck, stands at an open balcony door, with Paris houses rising in the background. He looks down at his sleeping lover, as if waiting for her to awake and resume their pleasures. This painting strongly appealed to Balthus. It had a suggestive title he would have been pleased to adopt, great technical skill in portraying female flesh, the sensual nude’s sexy raised-leg pose which Balthus often used, the resemblance of the male figure to himself and the scandal when the picture was rejected by the Salon of 1878.
Balthus’ artistic reputation did not completely satisfy him. The soi-disant Comte de Rola—or Rolla—bought a series of castles to confirm his title and emphasize his nobility. Claiming that his art was more important than a workman’s food, he egoistically declared, “I have a greater need for a château than a laborer for a loaf of bread.” In 1953 he bought the Château de Chassy, near Nièvre in the remote Morvan region of central France, 150 miles southeast of Paris. The huge three-story manor house had thick walls and round pointed towers on all four sides.
In 1970, while living in the sumptuous Villa Medici, Balthus acquired and restored the thirteenth-century stone Castello di Montecalvello, near Viterbo, fifty miles north of Rome. He finally left Italy in 1977 and bought a fifty-room ruin, the Grand Chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland, thirty miles east of Montreux. When his desire for self-promotion surpassed his wish for privacy, he had his three châteaux photographed in House and Garden
and the French Vogue
. Balthus always insisted that his servants and suppliants address him as Comte. Though the title was meant to enhance his stature and the no-account count clung to this role till the end of his life, his false claim made a ludicrous impression and was mocked by his old friends.
Nabokov and Balthus had unusually long and productive careers, and moved from riches to poverty, from obscurity and back to wealth. Like the English writers Kipling, Lawrence and Auden, who spent years in America, Nabokov finally returned to Europe. Though Scott Fitzgerald bitterly remarked that Switzerland was “a country where very few things begin, but many things end,” Nabokov and Balthus always associated it with luxury and security. Both men, who lived quite near each other in 1977, died in Switzerland: Nabokov at 79; Balthus, looking like a withered Voltaire, at 93.II
Nabokov and Balthus were intellectually and emotionally connected by their lifelong interest in Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allan Poe, and by their hatred of Sigmund Freud. Carroll epitomized the surprisingly large group of sexually repressed, dysfunctional and miserable English writers in the Victorian age, including Carlyle, Ruskin, Swinburne, Pater, Hopkins, Wilde and Housman. Carroll was a pseudonym, like Balthus and V. Sirin. A Cheshire cat appears in Alice in Wonderland
and in many pictures by Balthus. At Cambridge, Nabokov translated Alice
into Russian, and he describes Lolita as “a half-naked nymphet stilled in the act of combing her Alice-in-Wonderland hair.”
Carroll, whose temperament was morbid and taste perverse, liked to photograph half-naked pubescent girls. His provocative image of the beautiful Alice Liddell, the model for the fictional Alice, foreshadowed Balthus’ paintings and was the visual representation of Lolita. The photograph shows a very young girl in a pose and dress completely opposed to Victorian standards of respectable behavior. Alice wears a ragged, knee-length, gipsy-like skirt and very low-cut top showing her left nipple. She has her hand on her hip, bare feet, a pouting expression and seductive appearance. For unknown reasons, probably connected to Carroll’s provocative images of Alice, her family severed relations with him. Nabokov was delighted to learn that the name of Alice’s governess was Miss Prickett. Balthus must have noticed that Carroll anticipated the facial distortions in Picasso’s portraits when Humpty Dumpty says, “if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose … that would be some
help” in recognizing you.
Poe, a favorite writer of both Nabokov and Balthus, helped them recapture the past. In The Great Gatsby
, Nick Carraway warns Gatsby, who’s courting his youthful love, “You can’t repeat the past,” and he replies, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Poe portrayed in his last poem “Annabel Lee
,” whose name with its labials suggests Loli
ta, a longing for his lost childhood sweetheart. “In a kingdom by the sea” he grieves for the death of a beautiful and innocent girl: “And this maiden she lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me.” Poe had loved his cousin Virginia when she was a child. She had been his thirteen-year-old child bride and died young of tuberculosis. Poe had both poetic and carnal relations with Virginia, and realized his adult fantasies by combining pedophilia with quasi-incest.
Nabokov brilliantly transforms the slim, Southern Edgar Poe into another awkward outsider, the middle-aged European Humbert Humbert, and the childish dying Virginia Poe into the naïve yet knowing Lolita. In the novel Humbert attempts to recapture his childhood love Annabel Leigh through his adolescent step-daughter Lolita, and recalls: “there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom
by the sea.” Humbert’s pleasure is intensified through sado-masochistic sex with Lolita. He rapturously explains that “when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over those childish features.” After Humbert loses Lolita, he murders the guilty Quilty in a decayed Gothic mansion that resembles Poe’s crumbling House of Usher.
Recalling his idyllic childhood, Balthus declared, “God knows how happy I would be if I could remain a child forever.” In his 1949 essay, Camus emphasized Balthus’ Poe-like nostalgia and obsession with “the emotional world of the adolescent, particularly the intensity of adolescent love.” In his Large Composition with Raven
(1986) Balthus pays a macabre tribute to Poe’s most famous poem. He portrays the raven, a sinister omen that Poe called a symbol of “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance,” pointing its sharp beak at a naked girl’s genitals as if he were about to penetrate her.
Both men loathed Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, which Balthus called “the curse of modern thought” and Nabokov condemned as the work of a Viennese quack. They believed Freud perversely shifted the emphasis from art to the artist, and offered pseudo-scientific speculations about the creator’s inner life. Nabokov mocks Freud throughout Lolita,
especially in the lecture to Humbert by the headmistress of Beardsley School, Mrs. Pratt (English slang for buttocks), who regrets that Lolita is not developing sexually and believes the innocent child should be given sexual instruction.
Nabokov detested the fictional use of symbols and allegories that also distracted attention from his work. He hated “the vulgarity of human interest” and categorically dismissed all social, political and philosophical subjects as extraneous to art. Balthus firmly agreed, and in his 1984 exhibition catalogue insisted, “I very much disapprove of the habit of feeding the public with details and anecdotes on a painter’s private life together with the implication that the latter somehow explains his paintings.”
Though the shocking display of bare vulvas are the main focus of interest in his pictures of naked girls, Balthus tried to purify them by denying the obvious sexual content: “Some have claimed that my undressed young girls are erotic. I never painted them with that intent, which would have made them anecdotal, mere objects of gossips. I aimed at precisely the opposite, to surround them with a halo of silence and depth, as if creating a vertigo around them. That’s why I think of them as angels.”
Balthus’ erotic work belongs to a significant but scandalous modern literary and artistic tradition. Frank Wedekind’s play Spring Awakening
(1891) deals realistically with the surge of sexual feelings and erotic fantasies in puberty. Felicien Rops’ The Temptation of St. Anthony
(1894) portrays a crucified naked woman with bare breasts and cleft vulva. Edvard Munch’s Puberty
(1895), not as bold as Balthus, shows a round-faced, wide-eyed pubescent girl who exposes her budding breasts but covers her genitals with crossed arms. Jules Pascin’s Caress
(1925) reveals a woman lying on her back, her open vagina at the viewer’s eye level as she pleasures herself with her finger. Similarly, in Christian Schad’s Two Girls
(1928) one woman in her twenties, facing the viewer with open legs, fingers her exposed hairless vulva while another naked woman, reclining behind her, simultaneously satisfies herself.
In James Joyce’s Ulysses
(1922) Gerty MacDowell raises her legs and exposes herself to the wildly excited voyeur Leopold Bloom. Joyce’s orgasmic description of Gerty, “bent so far back” like Balthus’ naked girls, alludes to French can-can dancers and to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing
she let him and she saw that he saw … she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back that he had a full view high up above her knee where no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn’t ashamed and he wasn’t either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn’t resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirtdancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking
—until he finally ejaculates. Like Joyce, Balthus allows us to see what is usually hidden and forbidden in life and art.
In 1934, following this erotic tradition, Balthus first exhibited his daydreaming, seductive and naked pubescent girls. Later on, he also painted his thin, small-breasted Japanese wife without adult pubic hair. By rejecting Jonathan Swift’s command to hide “those Parts that Nature taught us to conceal” and revealing female genitals in a libidinous way, Balthus allows the voyeuristic viewer to violate their Eve-like innocence. His friend Antonin Artaud, inventor of the Theater of Cruelty, emphasized Balthus’ disturbing content, his use of “the technique of [Jacques-Louis] David’s era at the service of a violent, modern inspiration, of a sick era, in which the artist only uses reality in order to crucify it more effectively.”III
Balthus painted his six most erotic works in his greatest era, the 1930s. Combining the superb draftsmanship of Ingres and the sensuality of Modigliani, he created comatose pubescents with awakening sexual awareness and sinister overtones. In André Derain
and Cathy Dressing
the men look away from the girls; in The Guitar Lesson
the lesbian is sexually engaged with her. The genitals of the girls, who present themselves like animals in heat, are the center of attention and draw the spectator into the pictures.
Thérèse Blanchard, the eleven-year-old model for Girl with a Cat
, was the daughter of a neighborhood waiter in Paris. She wears a green skirt and red sweater over a red shirt. Her oversized head, above a shrunken torso, is framed by thick brown hair curling onto her forehead. She has a blunt nose, thick lips and widely spaced eyes, and a sullen pouting expression. She crosses her arms and locks her fingers behind her head to lift her budding breasts. Reclining on a chaise longue with her left leg characteristically raised (as in Rolla
by Henri Gervex), she rivets our attention on her panties, and what they suggest and scarcely hide. The bright red tongue of the brown tabby at her feet matches the girl’s red shirt and sweater, and reflects the features of her face and colors of her knee socks. Like “pussy” in English, chatte
(female cat) in French slang means vagina. Thérèse Dreaming
portrays the same young model with another erotic grey cat lapping milk from a saucer on the floor. Thérèse reclines on the same chair with arms crossed behind her head, and raises her left leg to reveal her undies and lace-trimmed slip between her red skirt and red pom-pom slippers. There’s a hint of adolescent hair beneath her raised left arm. She wears a white buttoned shirt open at the collar and leans uncomfortably back on a large green cushion. Seen in profile with closed eyes, she now looks prettier, and her pose suggests that she’s dreaming about sex. To her right, in front of brown and red-striped wallpaper, a green-topped wooden table holds a carelessly folded white cloth, red and grey canister, tall blue frill-topped vase and delicate orange single-stem vessel thinned out in the middle like a woman’s waist. Alice
depicts a girl, certainly not in Wonderland, combing her tangled hair and cornered between empty walls and stark floor. She has an oval face, curved upper lip, glaucous, closed Modigliani-eyes and sleepy expression. She pulls up the bottom of her transparent chemise, lowers the top and exposes one full breast. Her other breast, covered by her right arm, is much smaller and asymmetrical. Raising her thick, muscular, trunk-like left leg with rough red knees onto a fragile cane-seated chair, she boldly exposes her pubic hair (a rare exception in Balthus) and her dark vulva that hangs down like a fissured scrotum. Antonin Artaud described the element of threat in this picture: “By the light of a wall, a polished floor, a chair, or an epidermis he invites us to enter into the mystery of a human body. That body has a sex, and that sex makes itself clear to us, with all the asperities that go with it. The nude has something harsh, something tough, something unyielding, and—something cruel. It is an invitation to lovemaking, but one that does not dissimulate the dangers involved.”
The subject of André Derain
, the Fauve artist and close friend of Balthus, was fifty-six when his portrait was painted. He is clean shaven, very tall and broad, with a massive chest and shoulders. He has black hair, huge forehead, greenish jowly face, glaring pouched asymmetrical eyes, long straight nose, downturned mouth and double chin. This monumental man, facing the viewer and nearly filling the frame, wears a heavy brown and red-striped belted bathrobe, which recalls the wallpaper in Thérèse Dreaming
. In a Napoleonic pose his large spread-fingered left hand is placed between his robe and the white shirt beneath it, and penetrates the slit of his shirt to suggest the sexual act. His paintings are turned against the side wall.
Behind the much older man and nearly pushed out of the picture, an exhausted pale-skinned girl, half his size, sits submissively on a wooden chair. She has blushing cheeks, sad expression and downcast eyes that shut out her grim situation. She exposes one full breast and seems to be preparing herself for the next sexual assault by the monstrous Derain. By contrast, Balthus’ contemporary painting of a fellow artist, Joan Miró and His Daughter Dolores
, portrays a young girl in a striped dress who replicates Joan’s flat face, high forehead, small mouth and strong chin. She rests her right hand on his hand and her left hand on his knee, while he embraces her waist. The picture describes tender love, rather than sexual exploitation, of father and daughter.
In Cathy Dressing
the elongated Cathy, her unruly reddish hair combed and arranged by a grim-looking maid, stands with one extended slipper-clad foot in the circle of a colored carpet and grasps the erect mirror handle. She tilts her mask-like head, has a troubled expression and wears an open flesh-colored silk gown. She boldly exposes her large projecting breasts and erect nipples, her elongated Lucas Cranach-like torso with slightly protruding belly and, by contrast to her well developed chest, her bare clefted vulva. In Lolita
Nabokov describes the pleasure of watching such a girl: “there is always delight in the semitranslucent mystery, the flowing [veil] through which the flesh and the eye you alone are elected to know.”
Cathy is wanton, her maid severe. The maid’s hooded eyes, long nose, thin face, narrow mouth, strong chin and harsh expression are modeled on the woman in Honoré Daumier’s The Third Class Carriage
. (Balthus’ father published a monograph on Daumier in 1923.) Weber notes, “The maid’s tight grey bun is in marked contrast to the seductress’s flowing blond tresses. Her gray and black uniform and white apron invoke rules and restraint.” The maid and Cathy, absorbed in her toilette, look away from and ignore her suitor.
The brooding man with a dark face, a self-portrait of Balthus, is dressed in a white shirt, black jacket and bow tie. Seated next to the naked lady, he anxiously wraps his hands around the posts on the back of his chair. Mixing memory and desire, he looks away from her and thinks of the pleasures to come. But his indented trouser leg and her bent right leg fit together across the space between them. He clenches his fists, as if angry about her slow progress that both prepares for and delays their erotic encounter. This picture was influenced by Edouard Manet’s Nana
(1876), in which a client in her dressing room watches impatiently as she prepares her toilette. Like the Balthus-figure, the gentleman is ready to pounce and will undress her soon after she dresses herself.
With the yellow guitar and upright piano abandoned, the musical tuition in the sensational The Guitar Lesson
turns into a perverse sexual lesson—a grotesque version of the sexually seductive music in Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata.” An older lesbian whose grim expression and shadowy face is an androgynous self-portrait, pulls the young girl’s hair that falls to the floor. The girl’s head—between piano and guitar—is low, her bare, bald and bifurcated vulva is high. The teacher’s fingers on the girl’s upper thigh are about to penetrate her vagina, and she spreads her legs as if she were playing her victim’s body like a cello. The girl, her dark skirt pulled up to her navel, is “bent so far back” like Gerty MacDowell. Uncomfortably sprawled across the woman’s lap, she has a dazed, open-mouthed, orgasmic expression. Her wool-lined slippers, high white knee socks, bows in her hair and shirt accentuate her youthful innocence. Her underwear is not visible, and may have been removed to prepare for her erotic training. Her bruised red knees suggest she’s been kneeling in a previous sexual rite. Her limp open hand touches the floor and suggests complete surrender.
Despite her swoon, the girl massages the nipple of one cantilevered naked breast that projects from the top of the teacher’s grey silk dress. The nipple of her clothed breast is also erect. In this blasphemous pietà
, simultaneously stimulating and punishing, the lesbian seems to be providing pleasure and inflicting pain. Her mood is both seductive and sadistic as she forces the girl to submit to a masturbatory orgasm. Weber notes that the strictly alternating zebra striped piano keys, which echo the vertical stripes of the wallpaper, are not realistic; that the guitar’s tight strings resemble the girl’s pulled tight hair, her cleft is echoed in the cleft on the top of the guitar’s arm, and the instrument is curved and indented, like a human form, with a dark hole in the center. Both Balthus and Nabokov invite the viewer or reader to vicariously participate in forbidden pleasures.
During the scandalous exhibition at Pierre Loeb’s gallery in April 1934 the explicit sexual provocation was greeted with both outrage and delight. The Guitar Lesson
remained in the back room and was shown only to privileged clients. The picture was exhibited for the first and only time at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1957 when an ecstatic mob lined up to see it. Once owned by the actor Mike Nichols, it now belongs to the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, who keeps it well hidden in the bedroom of his luxurious New York apartment.IV
Brian Boyd reports that Nabokov knew and admired the paintings of Balthus who, he self-reflectively said, “at this late stage in the history of art could still find new poses and moods and implications for the human body.” In Strong Opinions
Nabokov confirmed what Balthus denied, “A contemporary artist I do admire very much, though not only because he paints Lolita-like creatures, is Balthus.”
When he was fifteen Balthus described, like Humbert, his ecstatic and inspiring physical embrace of an eleven-year-old model: “After holding him in my arms and sensing his shapely limbs with my body and arms, my pencil is more knowledgeable, for touch is as important as sight.” He ridiculed false rumors that in adult life he had sexual relations with his pubescent girls, though in 1949 he did sleep with his teenaged female model Laurence Bataille.
Many normal men are attracted to pretty young girls, but Balthus and Nabokov sublimated their longings into high art. Sabine Rewald describes the ambiguous feelings provoked by Balthus’ work, which turned the young girls “into archetypal nymphets observed by a voyeur. The strange dichotomy between the painter’s desire for and empathy with his adolescent models finds a pictorial analogy in their titillating postures … the contradictory spell of their sexual power and vulnerability.”
Robert Graves’ poem “The Naked and the Nude” describes the similarities between Nabokov’s novel and Balthus’ pictures. In both works,
Lovers without reproach will gaze
On bodies naked and ablaze… .
The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
Balthus’ erotic paintings, whose sharp and clear images suggest sexual ambiguity, inspired Nabokov’s similar descriptions of Lolita. The “dreamy sweet radiance of all her features,” for example, vividly recalls Thérèse Dreaming
. The predator-prey relations of the girls in Balthus’ art also recur in Lolita
. Balthus’ The Moth
(1960) combines Nabokov’s two personal and literary interests: the hunt for lepidoptera and for nymphets, both with short lifespans. The white flame of the tall cylindrical oil lamp shines on the long high-breasted torso of a female nude and attracts an elusive semi-transparent moth. With her hand grasping the tall bedpost and right arm extended, she’s either trying to capture the fluttering moth or to protect it from flying into the fatal flame. The upside-down glass on the bedside table could confine the moth if she manages to catch it.
Balthus’ pictures were inevitably connected to Nabokov’s sensational novel when Lolita
was published by the Olympia Press in Paris in 1955 and by Putnam’s in New York in 1958. Alluding to Balthus’ favorite painter, one critic called him “a curious mix of Piero della Francesca and Humbert Humbert.” Lucian Freud wrote that Balthus’s exhibition in London “showcased Humberts and Lolitas.” The artist, however, denied that their themes and mood were similar, and condemned the “Humbert Humbert school of critics.”
But in a late interview of 1996, Balthus admitted that he created The Guitar Lesson
in 1934 to shock spectators and establish his artistic reputation: “This one I painted because I was very hard up and I wanted to be known at once. And at that time you could be known by a scandal. The best way to get known was with scandal. In Paris.” In Balthus’ New York Times
obituary of February 19, 2001, John Russell quoted the artist insisting, with an important qualification: “I really don’t understand why people see the paintings of girls as Lolitas… . I’ve never made anything pornographic. Except perhaps The Guitar Lesson
Nicholas Weber deftly describes the achievement of both men. Balthus frequently repeated “that all comparisons to Nabokov are entirely off base, yet like the worldly and erudite author of Lolita
, he, too, has had the bravery and magnificent effrontery to acknowledge that grown men can be sexually attracted to young girls, and to make great art of that taboo. In a disarmingly tasteful style of painting, he has tackled without equivocation an apparently tasteless subject. Like Nabokov, he has brought intense culture and intelligence to the revelation of raw emotion.”V
The names of the characters in Lolita
are erudite, suggestive and amusing. Nabokov resisted giving the homicidal Humbert Humbert—who adopts the first name of Edgar (Signet ed. 71)—the home town of Baden Baden. His name, often jumbled in the novel, recalls the meditative “hmm”, the ironic “humble” and the accurate “humbug.” It echoes the great German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, to whom Edgar Poe dedicated his last major work, Eureka
, “With Very Perfect Respect.” It also recalls Umberto, the last king of Italy; the minor Georgian poet Humbert Wolfe; and most cunningly the witty and macabre Edwardian satirist H. H. Munro, known as Saki. The photos of notable homosexuals in the studio of Humbert’s friend Gaston Godin at (Aubrey) Beardsley College include “Harold D. Doublename.” “Harold” was the name of Charlotte Haze’s late husband; “Doublename” stands for both “H. H.” and Munro-Saki. Like Balthus, Godin paints “sliced guitars and blue nipples.”
Lolita—short for Dolores, which means “pains” in Spanish—has the euphonious labials and vowels sounded in the first sentence of the novel: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul… . Lo. Lee. Ta.” Lola Montez was the sexy and notorious Irish dancer and mistress of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich, was the destructive heroine of The Blue Angel
film in 1930. Algernon Swinburne’s poem “Dolores, Our Lady of Pain” was blasphemous and sado-masochistic. Lolita’s full name also recalls Balthus’ major painting Joan Miró and His Daughter Dolores
. Though Nabokov didn’t know the background, Balthus actually inflicted pain on Dolores by putting her in a sack when she did not sit still. Miró, who put art before children, did not object to Balthus’ cruel treatment of his daughter.
Lotte, the familiar name of Humbert’s pretentious, short-lived wife Charlotte Haze, sounds like the name of her sexual rival, Lolita. It also ironically recalls Charlottenburg, the posh district with elegant shops in Berlin, where Nabokov lived from 1922 to 1937. Charlotte, who longs to absorb European culture through the sophisticated Humbert, has the name of the hero’s lover in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther
and his Elective Affinities
. Nicholas Weber repeatedly uses “haze” to describe Balthus’ art. The variants of the word can mean cloudy and blurred, obscure and confused, teased and tormented. In Lolita
“haze” describes Humbert’s ambiguous motives, feelings and relations with both Lolita and Charlotte.
The names of Clare Quilty come from the mad nineteenth-century poet John Clare, and from Quilp in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop
and Quint in Henry James “The Turn of the Screw,” both of whom prey on children. Lolita’s husband Rich
ard F. (for Friedrich)
Schiller is, to use the German poet’s terms, “naïve” and unaware of her shocking past while she maintains a “sentimental” but not passionate attachment to him. Richard’s deafness corresponds to Friedrich Schiller’s fatal tuberculosis.
On their wandering journey Humbert is propelled by sex as much as by car. He has to keep Lolita sequestered, and constantly pleased with new clothes, junk food, childish movies and comic books so she doesn’t get bored and reject her companion, an un-Easy Rider, On the Road trip. Meanwhile, except for the considerable delights of sex and the distraction of perpetual movement, he’s also rather bored and culturally debased. So the volatile Humbert must play many different roles: cultured European, college professor, diarist, French scholar and translator; husband, stepfather, kidnapper, chauffeur, seducer and seduced; benefactor, avenger, murderer, prisoner and confessor. In the course of the novel he changes from benign to sinister to pathetic, from predator to lover to prey.
Humbert at first merely stares at pubescent girls with the perfect impunity that is only granted in dreams. He quotes the French Renaissance poet Remy Belleau when dreaming of Lolita’s secret place: “the hill velveted with delicate moss … traced in the middle with a little scarlet thread.” After sleeping with her, he ecstatically declares that her skin “presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock.” Aroused by fantasies and poetry, he confesses, “there is no other bliss on earth comparable to that of fondling a nymphet.”
Humbert realizes his wildest fantasies and satisfies his mad obsession. He recaptures the idealized girl of his childhood, indulges in forbidden sexual pleasures and takes ecstatic delight as Lolita’s lover. His amorous techniques, if not his potency, must have been infinitely superior to the desperate groping of Charlie in the summer camp near Climax, and he attempts to give Lolita intellectual as well as sexual lessons (museum, boredom). But he must pay the fatal price for his outrageous acts.
Humbert’s dangerous behavior, like feasting with panthers, is part of the excitement. The Mann Act of 1910 made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. Though the Act could not prevent the obsession of Humbert, who crossed a great many state lines, it could certainly punish him. At the climactic conclusion of Part One, Lolita smiles sweetly at him and declares with an ironic, half-serious threat: “You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me. Oh you, dirty, dirty old man.”
During our current epidemic of child molestation it’s difficult for readers to see that Lolita makes the first sexual advances to Humbert while Charlotte is still alive. She loses her virginity and becomes sexually experienced after sleeping with Charlie. As Humbert declares, “I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.” The apparently innocent orphan manipulates and eventually dominates the cosmopolitan sophisticate. She now has Humbert in her power, could expose him and send him to jail at any time, then live with either the Fowlers in Ramsdale or with the family of her friend Mona Dahl in Beardsley. But she prefers an itinerant life with Humbert, and after her escape continues to travel with Quilty.
In a poignant passage just before their final farewell, Humbert expresses his profound love for the pregnant housewife, though she’s no longer a nymphet: “I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” He then begs her to run away with him, “Come just as you are. And we shall live happily ever after.” His pathetic plea echoes Christopher Marlowe’s lyrical “Come live with me and be my love,” but does not allude to the following line that suggests her sexual submission: “And we will all the pleasures prove.” Referring to Quilty, who never really loved her, Lolita refuses to forgive Humbert and exclaims, “He
broke my heart. You
merely broke my life.” By giving Quilty’s address to Humbert, Lolita revenges herself and dooms both of them.
Like Humbert, Quilty adopts many roles: playwright, literary celebrity, inquisitive hotel guest, vigilant detective, fake uncle, cunning kidnapper, vile seducer, owner of a ghoulish mansion and murder victim. Lolita tricks Humbert in childish ways; Quilty deceives him with more sophisticated techniques. In The Enchanted Hunters hotel, he immediately perceives that Humbert and Lolita are not really father and daughter, and teases and detains Humbert, who is anxiously waiting to have sex with Lolita. Determined to possess Lolita, Quilty takes great pleasure in pursuing, tormenting and threatening to expose Humbert before stealing her. Humbert captures Lolita from camp, Quilty captures her from the hospital.
Like a Jacobean revenge tragedy, most of the characters die in Lolita
. Humbert’s first wife Valeria dies in childbirth. His mother is suddenly struck dead: “(picnic, lightning).” His childhood sweetheart Annabel Leigh dies euphoniously of typhus in Corfu. Charlotte is accidentally killed: (rain, car). Lolita descends from an innocent child to sex with Charlie, Humbert and Quilty, to marriage and death in childbirth. Humbert calls Quilty an “inhuman trickster who had sodomized my darling,” and kills the man who defiled her in a cruel and perverse way. Humbert dies of a coronary thrombosis while awaiting his trial for murder and the likely sentence of death. Like the Marquis De Sade, Humbert confesses in prison. Balthus’ older brother Pierre was an authority on the work of the divine marquis, and it’s quite possible that Nabokov read Pierre’s book Sade My Neighbor
In a crucial passage Humbert naively argues that “the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical … relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them.” Despite his “merely ask” and “practically harmless,” Humbert expects us to accept his argument. But the pathetic justification for his admittedly deviant behavior gives him away and reveals Nabokov’s devastating irony.
Weber, clinching the connection between Balthus and Nabokov, observes, “The use of his 1937 Girl with a Cat
on the widely distributed Penguin paperback of Lolita
was anathema to him. Balthus maintained that there is not a hint of lasciviousness in this portrait he made of a girl Lolita’s age—in which the viewer is at eye level with the child’s crotch… . Of the way that the child flashes her bare thighs at an alluring angle and flaunts her underwear-covered labia, he blithely commented, ‘That’s how little girls sit.’ ” But Balthus must have wanted the excellent publicity and granted permission for the Penguin cover in 1995. The deletion of the sexy cat merely intensified the focus on his nymphet.
The erotic images of the paintings and novel continue to haunt us. The scandalous publication of Lolita
provided a new way to look back and reinterpret the art of Balthus. His paintings were the visual equivalent of the novel; Lolita
was the verbal complement of the paintings. Balthus portrayed climactic scenes; Nabokov, influenced by Balthus, told the full story of sexual seduction, and created an ironic tragedy out of the erotic relations of man and child.