Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 23, 2013 – January 12, 2014
…And yes, we see Thérèse’s underpants. The showstopper, “Thérèse Dreaming” (1938), gets deserved pride of place in this exhibition of paintings made by Balthus between 1937 and 1959. An introductory text warns that “some” of us will find this material “erotic”: a rather odd warning, given that the title of the show includes both “girls” and “provocations.” How else are we to be provoked?
In college, it was cool to like Balthus (1908-2001). He called himself “the last real painter.” He was weird and politically incorrect. We were still getting used to our own bodies (still adolescent, although we didn’t think so at the time) being arousing and arousable, so if we giggled at the girls (and boys) he painted, if they were strangely titillating, well then so were we. Then, sex was still transgressive, and Balthus was determinedly, deliciously so: that was the provocation, the exhortation, even. And since Balthus was the one doing most of the looking, if we were drawn into a little collusive voyeurism, then it fit right in with the spirit of subversion and resistance to the old guard. Away with the status quo, the blowsy Renoirs. Even Manet looked a little staid, Picasso a little square—next to Balthus. Cool adults liked him, too. Balthus, they would murmur, as though savoring a rare vintage Pomerol, or remembering kinky, illicit pleasures—black market abalone, or good blonde hash.
Then you get a little older; you grow up. And when you have your own children and you see Thérèse Blanchard’s panties, you just want to ask: Where was her mother?
Balthus didn’t grow up. As the Metropolitan’s curatorial comments candidly admit, he was an uneven artist. What they don’t say is that he wasn’t a great one. Yes, he painted a few great paintings, the portraits of his young neighbor Thérèse among them. Almost all of them date to the 1930s. Does that make him a great painter? The Met seems to want us to think so, reverently granting each painting a good deal of space, as if to invoke hushed crowds huddled around each masterpiece. But after the initial charge wears off, the show becomes tiresome, too large, too erratic. One starts going through a mental exercise, sourcing his paintings one by one: here’s Courbet, and hullo, Simone Martini! Is that another Poussin over there? De Chirico? Matisse? Chagall, anyone?
Sure, every artist copies, but great artists work their sources, incorporating and transforming them, and they leave behind a trace, a residue, forming a line, however faint, from one phase to the next. Balthus loved to look, and he made careful studies of Piero and Poussin, but in the end he was a magpie, flitting from one influence to another, never resting long enough to develop any meaningful depth.
He did work his gimmick, though. There was a lot of mileage to be gained from adolescent girls with no pubic hair, legs spread, or bent over with their derrièresin the air, invariably borrowing—whether an inane rictus from Picasso (“The Room,” 1947), stippled innocence from Seurat (“The Toilet,” 1957), or floppy, lifeless limbs from Edward Weston’s photographs of his nymphet, Charis (“The Victim,” 1939). The common denominator of the work is a sinister, skewed perspective that seems calculated, like the delicate whip in the self-portrait, “King of Cats” (1935), to make you squirm. Nor does the supposedly talented portraitist paint faces that register: no one can conjure eyes that “see” like Rembrandt, but even Picasso’s crude cartoons make contact. “Thérèse Dreaming” wouldn’t be half as good if we could see her eyes. Maybe he just couldn’t draw.
He could draw pretty well as a little boy, though. The real coup of this show—and the reason to see it, if there ever was one—is the series of 40 original drawings from Mitsou, the graphic novelette, which the 11-year old Balthasar Klowsosski made in 1919 when his beloved cat, Mitsou, ran away, leaving him tearful and bereft. Tracked down by Sabine Rewald, the show’s curator, these little pen-and-ink sketches resemble expressionist woodcuts, impressive both for their emotional immediacy and for their competent draftsmanship, cobblestoned street scenes and interiors rendered equally well. Unfortunately, the Met displays them, like sacred artifacts, in glass boxes. At waist height, you have to resort to squatting uncomfortably to see them close up.
Balthus was born in Paris in 1908 to the sometime painter, Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, and Erich Klossowski, an art historian and not-very-good painter in the Impressionist mode. Polish, but carrying German passports, the family fled to Berlin after war broke out in 1914. Three years of wartime privation later, they moved to Switzerland, living with friends; in 1919, Balthus’s parents separated. His mother—who had renamed herself “Baladine”—became Rainer Maria Rilke’s on-again, off-again lover, while still maintaining some contact with Balthus’s father. The loss of Mitsou was only one of several losses, not the least of which was his home in France, and the stable presence of his father.
Rilke was much taken with the Mitsou drawings, and arranged for them to be published in 1921. If Rilke was fond of Balthus, Balthus adored the famous father figure who showered him with praise. One really can’t blame Balthus for his pretentious single name, because by the time he was published he had already been christened Baltusz—irrevocably dubbed, like Rilke, a divino artista. In Rilke’s preface to Mitsou, he advises its young author to comfort himself by repeating: “Don’t worry: I am. Baltusz exists. Our world is sound. There are no cats.”
None of that was true, of course, except for the name, which stuck—plus an “h” and sans the “z.” For a while, Balthus got to hang with Rilke and his classy friends, including Matisse and Bonnard, in various chateaus and castles—that is, whenever Rilke wanted mom around. Then all of that ended. Due to a lack of funds, Baladine and her sons relocated in 1921 yet again, back to Berlin—apparently Rilke wasn’t about to support them, no matter how much he “cared” for them—and lived in poverty for several years before they made their way back to Paris. (So much for the “soundness” of “our” world.) Baladine spent a lot of time pining for her poet, and her son’s pictures of women at windows (witness the feathery “Girl at a Window,” 1955) are generally thought to reflect the sadness that his presence couldn’t combat, exalted as his predestined future seemed to be. Less attention has been paid to Balthus’ experience of people who, like Mitsou, disappeared. But he would exist—as Balthus.
In the self-portrait, “King of Cats”(1935), an otherwise blank canvas bears the inscription “A Portrait of HM, King of Cats, painted by HIMSELF,” an apparent homage to the similarly placed inscription in Poussin’s “Self-Portrait” in the Louvre. But the Master’s reluctant self-portrait was commissioned, and its more modest inscription “Nicolas Poussin, painter” appears discreetly, on the obverse surface of a canvas. Poussin made it clear that his occupation was secondary, a means to make the work. For Balthus, the work was secondary, a means to make him king. He was only filling his mandate to be a great artist; his efforts paid off.
Inhabiting his own niche, and eschewing public contact (and therefore criticism), he became the strange one, the reclusive, the enigmatic, and ultimately, the revered one. It did not matter that his interiors and landscapes sank into frank banality. Picasso owned them. Balthus got to run the French Academy in Rome and redecorate the Villa Medici. Bono sang at his funeral.
Wrapping himself in insulating mystery, Balthus mythologized himself. He disavowed his mother’s Jewish ancestry and called himself a Count, adding to his own name, his father’s ancestral noble one (Rola), along with a new, pan-European prefix. Perhaps Comte Balthazar Klowsosski de Rola needed to reclaim an idealized father while distancing himself from the abandonments and hardships of his nomadic past. He put down roots in the area of Switzerland where he spent a few idyllic summers with Baladine and Rilke, a rhapsodic triad. Yet while he reinvented himself just as his mother did, his chaotic oeuvre tellingly echoes his chaotic history. His enduring preoccupation with Wuthering Heights and explicit identification with Heathcliffe makes you wonder how much Balthasar remained in Balthus—or ever was. There are no cats.
It’s not fair to psychoanalyze someone from afar. But one can’t help noticing that without secondary sex characteristics, little girls and little boys look more like each other than do mature men and women. Rilke wrote a poem for little Baltusz entitled “Narcissus”; Balthus famously took Poussin’s “Narcissus” and remade him into a woman (“Summertime,” 1937). “Thérèse Dreaming” owes a lot to Poussin’s sleeping Rinaldo (“Rinaldo and Armida,” 1627), his manly legs open and exposed. And the “King of Cats” looks more like a ballet master—as should the son of a Baladine—but with the proportions of the lanky boy he was: little heft, elongated limbs, the head too big for the body.
Like his subjects, as a child Baltusz was put on display, exhibited for the pleasure of adults. In a seductive letter Baladine wrote to Rilke after they first met, she invites him to visit, dangling her two “ravishing” boys as bait. In 1919, the same year that Balthus found and lost Mitsou, Guerlain introduced the timeless fragrance called Mitsouko. Perhaps his mother wore it, an exotic beauty as ravishing as her children. Perhaps Balthus, too, was pining, always losing and looking for her, along with the others. Perhaps if he had been a ravishing little girl, Rilke wouldn’t have run away. Who knows? There were other things to look for, and at, and certainly it’s better to be the one doing the looking.
Photographs of the aging Balthus at the fabulous Grand Chalet at Rossinière, where he lived from 1977 until his death in 2001, show a still-handsome, if frail gentleman with a cane, fussed over by his much-younger Japanese wife (a modern-day Mitsouko?) in a kimono. There is something sweetly child-like about him, a harmless old man with a cane, wrapped in a shawl, his skin taut over his aristocratic nose and cheekbones—beguiling, vulnerable, happy for the attention he’s getting. His daughter gets him another Mitsou. He is grateful. Don’t worry: Balthus exists. Our world is sound. Then you look at the Polaroids he was making (in lieu of drawings) of the semi-nude eight-year old AnnaWahli, his doctor’s daughter (“The Last Studies,” on display at Gagosian until December 21.) What is it with little girls, anyway?
But aren’t children beautiful? Isn’t that what kids do, play and do their homework on the floor with their butts in the air? Wasn’t Shakespeare’s Juliet only 14? And Thérèse—just look at that utter self-composure, those coltish limbs, so artless and yet so elegant. Can’t one suppose that she arranged and presented herself as the sexy woman she will soon be, flaunting her undies and that strange shadow that looks suspiciously like a menstrual stain? That she “owned” her budding sexuality and its exhibitionistic display? As Balthus—who rather incredulously disavowed any eroticism (or, for that matter, any meaning at all) in his paintings—explained himself, “That’s how little girls sit.” Poor Humbert. It was all Lolita’s fault.
And then, at the end of the Met show, when one exits through the inevitable gift shop (who thought to put a drawing of poor Baltusz, weeping for Mitsou, on a tote bag?), one is struck by an image that punctures these rationalizing balloons. “Girl and Cat,” from 1937, is a rehearsal of the 1938 “Thérèse Dreaming.”Assuming precisely the same pose as the inimitable Thérèse, on precisely the same bench, is a very different, much younger girl with a swollen, mask-like face (it graces a Penguin edition of Lolita). And you realize that these are not portraits at all, but poses—exact, compulsive, fetishistic poses, and that the artist slotted children into those poses to gratify his needs and predilections, whatever their nature—whatever the reason why Balthus thanked heaven for little girls.
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ADELE TUTTER, M.D., Ph.D. is a practicing psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. She is the author of Dream House: An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House (forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press) and coeditor of Grief and its Transcendence: Creativity, Memory, and Identity (Routledge). She is currently working on a second monograph, Mourning and Metamorphosis: Poussin's Ovidian Vision.