In the 1990s David Bowie made a foray into journalism writing for Modern Painters magazine. In this book extract, Tom Hagler describes how the rock star landed a massive interview – but missed a major story.
Bowie’s jump into journalism began when he offered the art world the unobtainable: an interview with ‘the least known great painter of the 20th century’.
Balthus was the last survivor of the School of Paris, a group of diverse, innovative artists, including Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Mondrian and Modigliani, who rejected established artistic practices. Bowie’s scoop was down to the fact that he happened to live near Balthus in Switzerland and had bumped into the reclusive artist’s wife at an exhibition.
“I gave him a call and proposed a meeting,” said Bowie, who suggested bringing along a “proper” journalist. “Good heavens, no,” replied Balthus. “I can’t stand art journalists. They are always so intellectual. I’d prefer you to do it, dear boy.”
Bowie almost did not make it to the 86-year-old’s Swiss chalet. “I was so petrified, I nearly turned back three times,” he said. Not only would this be his first “serious” article in a “serious” publication, it would also define whether he would sink or swim in the new world of high art and intellectualism.
“I wanted to show my mettle,” Bowie said, who had just joined the board of Modern Painters. “Being a rock singer – Rock GOD – it’s quite hard to convince people that your interests extend outside the parameters of purely being up on stage wearing funny trousers.”
The two men hit it off from the start. They talked for four hours, and the resulting 20 pages was the longest interview the magazine ever printed.
“That was a joy to do because he was such a gentleman and so mysterious and knew he was pulling you into his myth,” recalled Bowie. Balthus spoke about lunching with Marlon Brando. Picasso, he said, had defended him when he was accused of being a fascist for painting figurative art.
Balthus also mentioned how the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, his mother’s lover, had helped him as a young boy publish his first book at the age of 11.
Balthus himself was unaware of the extent of Bowie’s fame. “Are you used to photographers?” he asked innocently, as a cameraman took snaps of the two. “Unfortunately, yes,” replied Bowie.
“There were so many secrets about him,” said Bowie, although the most notable “secret” – the allegations of paedophilia – was scarcely touched upon. Paintings of pre-pubescent girls in provocative poses, allied with allegations of affairs with his young “models”, had swirled around the painter since the 1930s. Museums had banned his work, and Tracey Emin was not alone in labelling him “a pervert”.
But then Balthus brought up the issue himself with one of his most controversial paintings, “The Guitar Lesson”. This features a young girl, skirt pulled up and naked from the waist down, lying on the lap of a female music teacher whose pulled-down blouse reveals an aroused nipple.
“I was in bad shape and I wanted to make a name for myself,” Balthus told Bowie. “You know, David, in these days, the only way to make a name for oneself was to scandalize.”
Rather than point out that Balthus had carried on painting explicit images of pre-pubescent girls, Bowie replied, “Provocation has paved the way and fostered the careers of many.” Unprompted, Balthus went on, “I am simply attracted to the immature forms of a teenager, that is all.”
Again, Bowie declined to take up the offer to delve into that most talked-about aspect of the artist’s career, as any trained journalist would have, and instead asked about the artist’s symbolic use of books and mirrors.
Maybe Bowie thought the allegations of paedophilia were spurious, or that “the work” was more important than the life, or that a challenge from a rock star might feel hypocritical.
Bowie concluded that he and Balthus were both prepared to shock to pursue their beliefs or, as the singer termed their philosophy, “Put it out and be damned.” Emotionally, there was a connection, too.
“As with any aged gentleman that I come into contact with, my immediate need is to treat him as the grandfather I never knew or the father I needed more of,” Bowie told The Independent’s David Lister. “We are time and worlds apart, which has made for a rather lovely friendship.”
The singer was delighted by the article’s impact: “I see it now quoted in academic things saying, ‘From the Bowie interview’. Whoa, that’s me!”
This is an extract from We Could Be: Bowie and his Heroes, by Tom Hagler, published by Octopus Publishing Group. £20.
Picture: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo