Art Seen: National

BALTHUS // CATS AND GIRLS

by Nadiah Fellah

Contemporary audiences are often inured to even the most provocative of imagery, the presence of which has become ubiquitous in our visual culture. However, if a twenty-first century audience still gets squeamish in front of eroticized paintings of young girls, is our discomfort anachronistic, or does the work present a new set of problematics? As if to anticipate the answer to this question, the Met’s Balthus exhibition, Cats and Girls–Paintings and Provocations, is hedged behind a warning sign posted by the museum: “Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors.” Unease aside, the exhibition, organized by Balthus specialist Sabine Rewald, offers a rich and focused view of the artist’s early oeuvre, mainly displaying works from the 1930s through the 1950s. It also includes an unseen suite of ink drawings from 1919, a series about the artist’s cat Mitsou, drawn when he was just eleven years old.

The King of Cats, 1935, oil on canvas, 71 x 48 inches.

The King of Cats, 1935, oil on canvas, 71 x 48 inches.

The exhibition opens with a large self-portrait from 1935 entitled The King of Cats. In it, Balthus stands in a self-assured and authoritative pose, the dominance over his feline subjects reinforced by the stool and whip set next to him, the same as those used by lion tamers. However, his posturing is belied by the cat in the scene, who affectionately nuzzles his leg. In this way, the painting becomes a primer for the exhibition, introducing the reoccurring figure of the cat as the artist’s alter ego, an idea put forth by Rewald and elaborated on throughout the show. The painting’s illustration of ostensible power and pretension are also important signifiers for the exhibition, allowing viewers a glimpse of the artist’s playful character. Furthermore, it foregrounds his commitment to a realist aesthetic at this time, once famously remarking, “most of the people who did abstraction were stupid.”[1]

Thérèse Dreaming, 1938, oil on canvas, 51 x 59 inches

Thérèse Dreaming, 1938, oil on canvas, 51 x 59 inches

Given the political upheaval and social strife of 1930s Europe—a period in which the exhibition is particularly strong—it is no surprise that Balthus sought comfort in images that evoked a more calm and stable past, his own private iteration of the return to order many artists of his generation were undergoing. In his quest for a subject whose innocence was intact, and not yet corrupted by the realities of war, the artist turned to young, prepubescent muses like Thérèse Blanchard, his young neighbor in Paris, of whom eight portraits are on view. Balthus once stated in an interview that “Little girls are the only creatures today who can be little Poussins,” a statement that implies their connection with something pure and timeless, much like the figures in Poussin’s romantic paintings—although Balthus’ paintings would prove to profoundly alter what was pure and innocent, a commentary instead on the latent sexuality that he saw present in his subjects.

The Golden Days, 1944-45, oil on canvas, 58 x 78 inches

The Golden Days, 1944-45, oil on canvas, 58 x 78 inches

The neo-classical type of formalism that Balthus stylistically ascribed to is complicated by the various controversies wound up in his subject matter, a contradiction that has problematized his paintings since the 1930s, and earned him the moniker “the Lolita painter.” One of the artist’s most notorious paintings, The Guitar Lesson from 1934, is conspicuously absent from the exhibition, one of the least exhibited and most sought after paintings of the twentieth century. Painted for his first exhibition in Paris, Balthus said the picture was designed to attract attention when he was still unknown, an act modeled on the nineteenth-century artist Gustav Courbet, whose paintings of lesbian lovers equally shocked audiences at the time.

Nude with Cat, 1949, oil on canvas, 80 x 65 inches

Nude with Cat, 1949, oil on canvas, 80 x 65 inches

However, contrived or not, there is an unsettling element in Balthus’ work that goes beyond simply the polemical subject matter. The subjects themselves are often situated in awkward or uncomfortable positions, the figural proportions of their bodies depicted in a manner just shy of faithful rendering. This distorted element extends to the spaces of the Balthus’ interiors as well, in that his lines never adhere to a single vanishing point, creating irregular planes that contribute to a notable rupture between reality and painted surface. This inaccessibility is similarly reiterated by the girls in his paintings, who are typically depicted with their eyes closed or heads turned. Even when depicted frontally, their gaze falls short of meeting that of the viewer’s – portraying them instead as persistently aloof and disconnected.

The Salon, 1941/43, oil on canvas, 44 x 57 inches

The Salon, 1941/43, oil on canvas, 44 x 57 inches

In producing these fissures, both stylistically and aesthetically, Balthus denies viewers the ease of a voyeuristic experience for pure pleasure. By creating realms in which the real is confounded, Balthus instead gestures to narratives that veer toward the surreal or the allegorical. This tendency can be seen in images like The Victim, painted between 1939-46, and said to be an allegory of France during World War II. In it, the figure of a young nude lies on a bed with limbs at awkward angles, a knife beside her, the question of whether she is dead or sleeping left ambiguous.

The Victim, 1939-46, oil on canvas.

The Victim, 1939-46, oil on canvas.

In some ways, it is tempting to imagine that the dissonance the paintings create may have been deliberate. The tactic succeeds in distancing his audience from his subjects, and protecting for himself what lays just beyond the picture plane—in particular, his fragile ego and the figures of the young girls whom he grew to take comfort in—an assessment that leaves the appropriateness of those relationships open for viewers to take stake in.


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Bathus, Cats and Girls–Paintings and Provocations runs through January 12, 2014.

Nadiah Fellah is a doctoral student of Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.


[1] Michael Kimmelman, Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere (New York: Random House, 1998)

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