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Hollywood actor Richard Gere in conversation with Balthus: Art, acting, life, and Captain Haddock

French-born painter Balthus, who died in February, rarely gave interviews and maintained that he delighted in being anonymous. His friend of 20 years, the actor Richard Gere, spent a few days at his Swiss home in December last year, where they enjoyed a long discussion, full of twists and turns

The friendship between the American actor Richard Gere and the painter Balthus may surprise many people, but it reveals subtle sides to both men. They first met 20 years ago, when Richard Gere was filming in Italy, and have been friends ever since. The following excerpts are from a conversation between the two men when Mr Gere was a guest at Balthus’s home in the Swiss mountains.

Shortly after their meeting Balthus died, aged 92. He had been suffering from a lengthy respiratory illness.

Balthus, known for his erotic paintings of adolescent girls, is regarded by some as the greatest realist painter of the 20th century. He was both a self-styled recluse and an impressive social mover who knew the cream of artists, writers, actors, politicians, even pop stars. Bono, of the pop group U2, sang at his funeral. In his twenties he lived in Switzerland in a villa once owned by the poet Byron. This may have inspired his later, unfounded, claim to aristocratic blood: he styled himself Count Balthazar Stanislav Klossowski de Rola, and claimed to be a distant relative of the poet.

Richard Gere: Your universe has always interested me because it isn't immediately obvious why your painting acts on our hearts or minds so powerfully. It's so very subtle, this interaction. The Surrealists, the Abstract Expressionists, the conceptual artists, they engage certain parts of our brain and it's fairly obvious how they work on us. You, on the other hand, use recognisable images in naturalistic settings fragmenting time and space, creating an effect outside of both.

Balthus: Outside of time, yes. What I'm most interested in are recognisable images, what Braque called the pictorial effect.

RG: So the content is of no interest to you.

B: No. For example, when I began, I painted “The Guitar Lesson” to cause a scandal. It was the only way of getting attention, but what pleases me is that now it is regarded as a painting. The theme is a mere pretext.

RG: Exactly. When you see one of your paintings there is the illusion of a story. They have all the comfort and narrative cues of story telling. We all love to sit around the fire and be told a story.

B: Your words are full of sensations and imagery. Your conversation has all the qualities of a film.

RG: It's true that I usually see things and ideas in terms of images.

B: Fellini did as well and so do I. When I see someone, I'm sketching with my eyes. I am constantly looking at the world as a theme for painting.

RG: It's because we're children and children communicate very quickly in images.

B: I've never stopped looking at the world through the eyes of a child and with a sense of wonder. The world of a child is infinite and as you grow up, it starts shrinking.

I enjoyed an idyllic childhood and my youth was a brusque change, something completely different. I discovered life's difficulties and suffered a lot.

RG: Artaud was an influence on everything in American theatre in the 1970's which was my most formative decade. Even photos of him had an enormous impact on me. He had the eyes of a saint.

B: Artaud and I were so alike that people confused us. He said that his theatre of cruelty was cruelty against oneself.

RG: I took it to be cruelty against the notion of a solid self, cruelty against irrational self-cherishing.

B: Everyone forgets about the terrible accident that Artaud suffered as a child. He fell flat on his face.

RG: Also it seems he suffered from terrible headaches all of his life.

B: He had to take all kinds of drugs to get rid of his headaches and he suffered from hallucinations.

RG: This is all very Romantic, but I think this “cruelty” was much misunderstood. We need to be “cruel” to ignorance and find a way to open our hearts and genuinely care about each other. If we have the courage to tame our unruly minds, not to be fooled by conceptual reality, there is a beatific, a transcendent possibility awaiting all of us.

B: Yes. It's a sort of game of inversion which leads you fatally in the opposite direction. We should read Artaud again carefully.

RG: It's like the image of Saint Sebastian: cruelty to the self's... or to the idea of the “self” which is unknowable, a hallucination. You have to be brutal to this self-cherishing. But it is extremely difficult.

B: Everyone is cruel to others. It's very easy; it's our law. In German there's a word “to suffer with”.

When I was young, I suffered greatly. I had no money and with the exception of a few people, Picasso and Giacometti, no one helped me. I was alone against the world in Paris. I did everything, from painting chairs to translating.

This suffering, which to begin with was like a game of ping pong, took me to a state of religious ecstasy. As Baudelaire says in one of his verses, “Blessed Oh Lord are you who sends suffering as the supreme cure for our impurities”. Finally, Artaud saved my life.

RG: How?

B: He had gone to Africa and suddenly had an overwhelming feeling that he must come back to Paris and visit me. He arrived just at the moment when I had attempted to kill myself because of my love for Antoinette, who would later become my first wife.

RG: Literally, at that moment. Amazing! How did you try to commit suicide?

B: With an overdose of medication for treating the malaria I had caught in Africa. In a way, I was a very Romantic person, like someone from the 19th century.

RG: It was a such an expressive century, full of grand gestures, and fantastic voyages.

B: Romanticism still exists now, but in a different guise.

RG: We live in the age of irony, pure Romantic gesture now finds expression through humour, although I suspect that women even in these political times still approve of gallant gestures.

B: A certain finesse has been lost; a woman reveals herself immediately in all senses of the word.

RG: That can be quite wonderful and exciting but I think that men do miss a certain sense of modesty.

B: I understand this nostalgia for a certain type of woman. I also feel the same nostalgia for the figure of the gentleman. One of the people I most admire was Louis XIV. He was a gentleman. An ambassador once went to his court, ambassadors then enjoyed the privilege of not having to doff their hats before the king, but Louis XIV insisted, saying, “Don't you see that there are ladies present?”

RG: And did the ambassador remove his hat?

B: Obviously.

RG: What is interesting about the woman of today is that she tends to be totally straightforward, no artifice. The man doesn't have to push and she doesn't have to withhold. It's more flowing.

B: You know, prudishness for me is only a social issue. Malraux said that the 20th century would be either very religious or not religious at all. Prudishness is something religious.

RG: Religion is a difficult word. Misunderstandings about this word have led to so much unhappiness.

B: And on the contrary, many good things have also been done in its name.

RG: The Dalai Lama is very careful when he talks of religion. He always says “my religion is kindness".

B: When I met the Dalai Lama I was surprised by his aura, an almost tangible force which very few people have. Strangely, he was scandalised by how, as a painter, I sold my works.

Like the Irish, I'm very Catholic. I believe profoundly in prayer.

RG: Who are you praying to?

B: To God, naturally.

RG: What's your vision of God? Who is God?

B: Everything.

RG: So your prayers are directed to everything, everywhere.

B: Praying is a way of getting out of yourself.. I'm not God, but I'm probably part of Him and when I pray I try to reach the light, a higher level. When I paint, it's like a prayer.

RG: Who is the one who paints his prayers, and tries to reach the light?

B: God. Man can't create, he can only invent. The painter is praying to the one who creates but both are the same. Perhaps the one who prays paints the creator. Perhaps the creator paints the one who prays. In the end it's all problematic for who creates the creator? It's an infinite regression. The painter tries to get out of himself and in that way approaches his creator. If you paint, you try to leave your ego behind and at that moment I feel the light which is God and my mind and my hand are merely machines which listen. You listen to what you've got to do.

RG: Who is the listener? Whoever is painting?

B: The painter.

RG: If you find the “Listener/Painter”, please let me know.

B: I think we are living in the age of the personality. Painters are less interested in painting than in expressing their personality, which is absurd. Today, painting is dead. If you have personality, the best thing you can do is get rid of it. I'm not interested in expressing myself.

RG: You are probably right. There probably are no painters in the painterly sense today, and part of the problem is we live in the age of such irony.

B: Why irony?

RG: Everything emerging now is commenting on itself. Nothing is just what it is. Everything is analysed or commented on to death. The purity of the image no longer exists.

B: Expressing oneself is the end of everything. It started with the Renaissance and the emergence of the so-called “artist”. I hate the word artist. I'm a great fan of Tintin. The last in the list of insults that Captain Haddock always let fly was “artist”.

I am convinced that the word artist is an insult because ever since it appeared the love for art and craft has disappeared. Picasso shared with me the idea of the universal artist wanting to destroy modern art. He also did lots of copies of works by great painters such as Delacroix and Velázquez. He used to say, “Picasso does nothing, but Delacroix, what a great painter!’ I think the artist must be profoundly narcissist in the sense he has to be in love with beauty.

RG: I think, though, with the greatest respect, that if one looks at your paintings, one would say that there is a personality who made them. There is the filter of your personality. There is Courbet, there is Balthus. I don't think that's a negative thing. You are the only one who could have painted your paintings.

B: It's not my fault if I am recognised.

RG: I am an actor, and I am different all the time, but everything I do is filtered through my emotions, and they are expressed instinctively. That's my gift. It is impossible not to have a personality.

B: I have succeeded in being anonymous. Perhaps the ego and personality are not the same thing but I prefer anonymity. I use teenage girls as a symbol. I could never paint a woman. Adolescent beauty is more interesting. Adolescence represents the future, the being before it becomes a perfect beauty. A woman has already found her place in the world, an adolescent girl, has not. The body of a woman is already defined. The mystery has vanished.

RG: Your parents were friends with Bonnard and Derain; how did these artists influence you?

B: They were good friends but their conception of painting was very different. They painted very fast, almost finishing their work with one stroke, whereas I retouch constantly.

Bonnard was just a young man when I met him. I remember having dinner at his house when I was 12 years old. Matisse was there too and he said, “Bonnard, you and I are the greatest painters of our era.” Bonnard replied, with that animated expression he always had, “That’s horrible. If you and I are the greatest painters, I feel like crying with sorrow.”

Bonnard told my parents not to send me to a painting school. It was the spirit of times. So my parents refused to send me to the Academy. The teachers there weren’t much good anyway.

I am self-taught. I learnt by making copies at the Louvre, mainly Poussin. Afterwards I left for Italy because of my father. He used to say that Piero della Francesca was the Cézanne of his time, I also copied Titian and Masaccio. I still remember the sense of inexplicable beauty in front of their frescos

How did you get to be an actor?

RG: I started quite early, second grade. I played Santa Claus. My mother made me the costume. I am sure it was brilliant. An actor is like a puppet; they are the same word in Hindi. It's a license to be, to feel. I was very shy and at school I gravitated to the theatre, music and performing. Emotions are my oil paintings. Who better knows emotions than an actor! Our entire craft is generating and playing with emotions.

B: Didn't you ever feel you were in the wrong place?

RG: No. Acting has given me a home and a context. It's been a good friend. A loyal friend. But sometimes a needy friend. The unhealthy part is that it does not exactly lead you to emotional responsibility.

It’s probably a little harder for women. Movies are a very masculine world, as 99% of filmmakers are men.

Have you met many actresses?

B: I've met so many actresses and it's difficult to label so many different women. Sharon Stone was here recently, just before she adopted her child. She drove me crazy at first because she was beautiful, but also because she has something inexplicably attractive.

RG: I worked with her some time ago and saw her again during last Venice Film Festival at a fundraiser for AMFAR.

She's done extraordinary things raising money for AIDS research and treatment. A very committed women.

B: An actress I admired was Audrey Hepburn.

RG: Very beautiful and very fragile.

B: Yes, extremely fragile yet at the same time with an extraordinary strength. I admired her more as a person than as an actress. She was a real lady and had an extraordinary ability not to show her emotions in her private life. I met her the day we threw a party in her honour at the Villa Medici in Rome. Her son, Sean Ferrer, had just suffered an accident with a lion in a zoo and no one was sure if he was going to lose his sight or not. We told her that we would understand if she couldn't come, but she did. She was fantastic and left for Los Angeles at midnight.

RG: I am surprised you say she was not a good actress. I thought she was amazing, magical, her emotions were so transparent, the movement of her thoughts so vivid. That was her beauty. It was something really difficult to do without appearing ridiculous. Being open, that willing to share your emotions.

***

RG: Balthus, do you ever think about death?

B: All that I know is that I'm not afraid of it, but I do not know how I'll react when it arrives. What I do not like is a brave attitude towards it. I have found myself near death in many situations because I have deliberately exposed myself to it for the sake of it, doing stupid things, such as jumping into a minefield. My bold side has always assaulted me.

RG: So everything will work out fine. I think the key to death is the same as to life: to overcome all hope and fear.

B: Absolutely. I'm definitely bound to all sort of things: my family, my daughter, Mitsou [the cat], warmth, my wife.

I adore life mainly because I love painting. Painting helps me to live. It gives me strength. For me painting is a way of living; I have always taken or left things according to my needs.

RG: Grasping or rejecting things is the same strategy. Giving power to things. I remember taking photographs when I was eight and wondering, “how do I balance the picture to make it feel alright”. The balance came by itself. The composition was innate.

B: I have to show you photos I did for my pictures.

[Setsuko goes to get some pictures taken by Balthus of Italian models when he was living in Rome]

RG: For me the composition either feels good or it does not. Maybe there is a technical way to explain it. But for me it just is a feeling.

B: I do not have any opinion regarding photography. For me photography is a documentation not art. My friend Cartier Bresson agreed with me in this respect.

RG: An interesting case is that of Brancusi. Some of the pictures he took of his work were extraordinary.

I saw your catalogue raisonnée and realised how your drawings work. For example, “The room” is exactly like a photograph.

[Balthus’s wife shows Mr Gere some of Balthus's photographs.]

B: The models are captivating. I would have to have been an idiot for the result not to be beautiful.

RG: Well, its obvious you are a master of light. Have you ever seen Lewis Carroll’s pictures of young girls?

B: I know them but they are very different from mine. I like the angelic side of them.

***

RG: I spent the night thinking, “Who is the one who paints?” As I was meditating this morning, the light coming through the windows was like one of your pictures.

B: That's what I see. I often wonder why people these days no longer paint from nature. Giacometti, who was my best friend, shared with me a similar concept of painting: close to nature, à la Cezanne. I admired his work very much. When he died, it took me three days to come back to earth. Then I organised an exhibition of his work at the Villa Medici. I think cinema will inherit the place of painting for creating transcendental works. Cinema is the art of the future; painting is dead.

RG: I don't think so and for a simple reason. Painting can never tell you how to feel and cinema tells you exactly how to feel. Everybody has a similar experience after a movie because all the elements of the narrative are towards the moment of emotion, of transformation. There is the tool of manipulation something very rare in painting.

B: You know, Richard, I would love to direct a film based on a novel by Walter Scott, The First Knight, and it would be wonderful if you would play. Will you accept?.

RG: Sure. We will work on it.

B: Richard, do you want to come to my studio?

[In the studio Richard looks at the painting which Balthus has been working on for the last 10 years, “The wait”. Balthus sits and contemplates what he has painted that morning.]

B: I don’t think there is anything else to do. It’s finished. I think it has a very strong and conscious touch of eroticism.

RG: In Butan the people have lost their savoir-faire. The houses are no longer built in the traditional way. They use cement which isn't as beautiful and doesn't retain heat.

B: Do people have the sense of efficiency in Butan?

RG: No, they do it to be “modern”.

B: I hate modern. What is it to be modern in painting? Painters today do not even know how to do a pictorial phrase. Before, there was a minimum of technique to learn. I remember when Miró showed his last paintings to Picasso, his response was, “Miró, how could you do such things at your age!”

I feel my world does not exist anymore. I do not understand anything of our times. It seems that ugliness has conquered the whole planet.

RG: What I think is horrible is that wherever you go, everything is the same. Fifty years ago it wasn't like that. Music, art, and architecture were different and uniquely indigenous everywhere.

B: We live in a general flatness, but what I don't understand is why we have to have all the ugliness as well?

RG: Bad Bauhaus influence nearly destroyed our cities. But today architecture and design are becoming more human, more sensuous. Simple but with a soul. I hope so, anyway.

B: I find all architecture unbearable, like the cities themselves and, for me, design is the end. Fashion moves everything. The world today is more intolerant. Everything has to meet a standard. It's ridiculous.

RG: You know, in New York, perhaps because of its sophistication, they talk of tradition.

B: [Laughing] I am not surprised given the way our society has developed. I even find it logical.

The kind of modernity that interests me is 20th-century. For example, Baudelaire as an aesthetic renewal, anti-conformism, as a reaction against the establishment. Or even before, when Shakespeare was modern, very modern. Now its normal to feel embarrassed by traditional things. What does the word “modernity” mean to you?

RG: I prefer things with a sense of history. They feel alive, with their own soul, like antique cloth. I have no interest in being current. I'm building a house which looks and feels as though it is 100 years old.

B: Perhaps in the end we're both modern. Just like we were talking about ugliness, poor Francis Bacon, a friend, an intelligent man, was irresistibly attracted by ugliness. I think that he would be what is today called a good painter.

RG: “What is today called a good painter?” Very skillful. Along with you, he's one of my favourite painters. He explored extremes of emotional experience. He tried to communicate distortion and madness. To say “Bacon ugly”, “Balthus beautiful” is irrelevant. He transcends what is traditionally called beautiful. Anyway beauty is completely subjective and therefore most likely false and ultimately meaningless.

B: I don't agree. I believe that beauty is an objective thing with universal canons. That's why I was talking about cathedrals. They were built at a time when only beauty in the widest sense of the term could be the result.

We come back to the pictorial effect. Bacon, was a painter in the sense that he had something to give out, but unfortunately he could not resist the attraction to ugliness. Take another example, the Goya dark paintings. In Goya it’s different. It's real painting, there is the pictorial effect and despite its appearance it's beautiful. I hope you know what I mean. Beauty comes from within and unfortunately Bacon's interior was, above all else, ugly.

Do you remember the film “Primal Fear” in which the innocent boy is the murderer?

RG: The surface of things is unreliable.

B: I'm sure of it.

RG: What I'm interested in is what lies below the idea of beautiful and ugly. In the film, the boy is innocent and monstrous at the same time.

B: Exactly. In the end we discover that deep down he's irredeemably ugly and that's what counts.

RG: It depends on how deep you look. At the deepest level we're all the same. At the deepest level we're clear light. Oceans merging into a drop of water. Anyway, I'm more optimistic than you.

B: You find the optimist by getting to know the pessimist. That's what I'm like. I hope you come to my exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in September. It will be the largest yet. Before you go, you can come to Montecavello with all the family [the castle that Balthus owns near Rome].

RG: I'd love to but I hope it isn't during the cinema festival. That's a terrible time for actors.

B: But that's what being an actor is, wanting everyone to love you.

RG: Everyone needs to be loved, probably actors more than most. I don't take it badly but it's just too much.

Balthus, before, you were saying that you are sometimes called the “Don Quixote” of painting. I wonder, what are your windmills?

B: I have so many. However, I have one SOS: to save painting, because the love of painting is dead. I even think that nowadays painting does not exist anymore. I find it impossible to understand what painters do in our times; they can’t do contemporary art. However, I love life because I love painting. Painting helps me live. It gives me strength. It's my seductive side, perhaps inherited from my relation Lord Byron, but don't say so. Don't tell anyone.

The exhibition, “Balthus”, at the Palazzo Grassi was to have been Balthus’s first retrospective, with the artist helping to select pictures, and persuade private collectors to lend. He was never to see the results, however, as he died in February. The curator is Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso, and there are over 250 works on show, on loan from around 90 museums, private collections and cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Tate Gallery. The paintings are arranged chronologically and fill all 36 rooms of the Palazzo Grassi, allowing the visitor to see Balthus’s development from his first painting, “The guitar lesson”, to his last ,“The wait”, completed just before his death. Palazzo Grassi, San Samuele 3231, Venice, Italy. Tel: +39 041 5231680 (9 September- 6 January ).

A book on Balthus by Cristina Carillo de Albornoz will be published next year by Edition Assouline. It takes the form of an interview with the artist where each letter of the alphabet is a starting point for discussion.