Happy New Year! If you were wondering, you have a little under two weeks left to catch Balthus: Cats and Girls at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Balthus is far from a block buster show, and hardly a household name to the non-art historian. Yet, his peculiar show is a great conversation starter and absolutely worth a trip with a friend and certainly a hot debate over a glass of wine afterwards.
The Academic Read: Balthus (1908-2001) was a French painter, who painted in a style that he called “Timeless Realism”… a more familiar painter of this same style was the surrealist Georgio De Chirico. When the rest of the art world was obsessing over abstraction and cubism and then collage and modernism, Batlhus was fixating on the Old Masters and the craft of painting. He was obsessed (and it becomes obvious) with the Renaissance Italian fresco painter Piero della Francesca… an obsession that grows increasingly influential in his work as he himself gets older and eventually moves to Rome to become the Director of the French Academy there.
SO, What’s the Big Deal: So, what makes Balthus so unique/provocative if he was painting in an “old fashioned” way at a time of relentless pursuit of modernism? Well, it was his subject matter. For years, Balthus focused his artistic (and, sexual) gaze on young women. Mainly, pre-pubescent girls of his neighbors who he would pose in girlishly uninhibited repose. Less sexualized were the girls that he painted than overtly, intensely sexual is his voyeuristic gaze towards them. (Below, Therese Dreaming from 1938- a part of the show… which in digital form looks like a Sunday Evening Post Cover by Rockwell gone terribly awry)
Does Therese seem like a Lolita? A temptress? No, far from it. But are we creeped out by this strange and slight man not only painstakingly painting this scene, but also… unlike the average adult who might say “Therese, sit UP!”, instead taking advantage of it? Enjoying it. So, it’s the enjoyment of these girls.. the awkward interiors and unusual positions that he places them in that has made Balthus a hard artist to handle. Judith Thurman (who met the artist as a younger woman when he was living in Paris) wrote in the New Yorker that “ake the high ground if you prefer, though none of the models, or their parents, ever accused Balthus of impropriety. The impropriety—timeless and realistic—was in his imagination.” Hmm. Perhaps. Or perhaps it was simply a different time where children were less protected… or kept more quiet or made to keep quiet. No one knows. What we do know is that it’s difficult to look at these paintings with a modern lens, before Megan’s Law, the devastation of the Catholic chruch scandals and two decades of Oprah classes on child predators. And so, there is the room for your friendly debate.
Sound Smart at the Museum with Some Biography: My discomfort with Balthus is largely buttressed by his rather unusual biography.. and I can’t help but see his work largely via that lens. He was born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola to a father who was a very well known Art Historian and a mother who was a fixture on the artistic social scene of Paris at the time. The cultural elite paraded in and out of the de Rola house, including the likes of Jean Cocteau who modeled the rather vindictive and odd children of Les Enfants Terribles on Balthus and his sister. For many years his mother had Rainer Maria Rilke as a lover, and it was Rilke (a published author) who discovered Balthus love of drawing and commissioned a book of Balthus cat drawings called Mitsou when Balthus was only eleven years old. As he turned to serious painting he kept his gaze on cats, but also, of course on the young girls. His first show was a critical disaster and he attempted suicide when his paintings were so poorly received. A slow worker, he would sometimes take up to two years to complete any one painting… something fascinating to note since so often his subjects feet and hands feel…unfinished. I couldn’t help leaving the show feeling that Balthus was an over-indulged child, and a petulant one at that. He evoked for me less a great master, than one of the Royal Tennenbaum children as an adult. Of course that’s for you to decide.
What You Won’t See: Is my favorite Balthus. It’s not in the show and it’s disgusting. Why do I like it? Jerry Saltz says it better than me- but he stops essentially f-ing around and taunting us with pushing our buttons and finally pushes them. It’s called The Guitar Lesson, 1934.