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article imageThe Met's Balthus Show Offers Meditations on Power And Sex Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Oct 13, 2013 in Entertainment
New York - There’s a special sort of power in the new Balthus exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one combining the whimsy and fearlessness of youth with the tension of the male gaze.
There’s a special sort of power in the new Balthus exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one combining the whimsy and fearlessness of youth with the tension of the male gaze.
Balthus: Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations” is a fascinating show, its thirty-four works exploring the relationships between youth and knowingness, vanity and violence, innocence and experience with a silent watchfulness and awe. Nowhere are these tensions better expressed than through the paintings that feature both Balthus’ nubile young muses and their winking feline companions. The show also wisely includes the work of a an eleven-year-old artist mourning the loss of a beloved pet; its “Mitsou” section, while the exhibition’s most literally colorless, is also its most emotionally colorful, and in many ways, creatively rewarding.
Balthus, born Balthasar Klossowski (1908-2001), was known for what the New York Times’ Roberta Smith accurately describes as “alluring, disturbing pictures of nubile adolescents [...] making images that conjured Courbet, Ingres, Piero della Francesca and Seurat and were charged with suggestive undercurrents.” Both of his parents were artists, though his father was also an art historian. He had a peripatetic childhood, moving between various European capitals and lived in Switzerland for the last 23 years of his life. When he passed away in 2001, mourners at his funeral included Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator and Balthus expert Sabine Rewald has paired some of Balthus powerful early portraiture with the more dreamlike work of his later life. Spread across four rooms, the exhibit offers a fascinating portrait of the artist’s creative output between 1935 and 1959. The entrance to the exhibit is marked by “The King of Cats” from 1935, a stern if quietly amusing self-portrait that features a sullen-looking artist and a fuzzy feline snuggling against his pant leg. A stone slab beside the pair reads, “A Portrait of H. M. The King of Cats, Painted by Himself.” It’s a sly nod that hints at the tension-filled power dynamics, as well as the dark humor, at work throughout the exhibition.
Thérèse Dreaming Painting  1938. Oil on canvas. French  Paris 1908–2001 Rossinière  H. 59  W...
Thérèse Dreaming Painting, 1938. Oil on canvas. French, Paris 1908–2001 Rossinière, H. 59, W. 51 inches (150 x 130 cm.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski).
This power is mainly concentrated in the figure of Thérèse Blanchard, the young French girl Balthus used as his model in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His portraits of her offer a beguiling combination of willfull independence and youthful vulnerability; different angles revealing a geometric precision that belies its subtle tonal shifts. The brushwork on “Thérèse, 1938” is especially exquisite, as Balthus combines textures, rendering her yellow blouse spare and brittle; it greatly contrasts with the tender way the artist has rendered her facial features, capturing her wary expression with heartbreaking insight. The soft pastels and shadows the artist uses here show a tender portrait of youth. This was Balthus’ sixth portrait of Thérèse, but it is the first he painted her looking directly at the viewer; such a pose hints at the relationships between viewer and subject which Balthus explores in other works, and offers an interesting power play that come to be a subtle but important undercurrent to understanding and appreciate his work.
Thérèse, as with many of the other young girls depicted in Balthus’ works, are little goddesses in their own right; they seem unaware of (or disinterested in) their sexual power, much less their relationship to it, but they are all, by choice or not, given over to the artist’s male “gaze,” infusing them with a powerful if provocative adult awareness. The tension between knowingness and naivete, awareness and non-awareness, innocence and experience is one the artist plays on at length, particularly within the works shown in the exhibit’s first room. By our looking at these works — at Thérèse’ swooning expression and the white of her panties in “Thérèse Dreaming” for instance — we, as viewers, become complicit in infusing these girls with power, transferring onto them our desires, our fears, our discomforts.
If the girls in the exhibition aren’t aware of their power, Balthus’ felines surely are; they, infuse each work with both a knowing playfulness. The cat depicted in the monumental “Thérèse Dreaming” from 1938 merrily licks at a saucer as his mistress stretches and reclines, reveling in her sense of self. in “The Salon II” the cat sits, eyes closed, in the bottom left corner, as Balthus’ nubile females read and recline, respectively. “Nude with Cat” from 1949 sees the cat laughing with delight as a nude figure swoons, leaning back, the cat more alert to the girl’s potential and transformation than the subject herself.
The Golden Days  1944 - 1946. Oil on canvas 58 1/4 x 78 3/8 in. (148 x 199cm). Hirshhorn Museum and ...
The Golden Days, 1944 - 1946. Oil on canvas 58 1/4 x 78 3/8 in. (148 x 199cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski)
Though there’s no cat in “The Golden Days” (1944), there’s a feline quality about its main subject; her beguiling mix of amusement, vanity, power, and lack of self-awareness provide a sense of peeking into a private scene. The tableaux is simple enough: a young girl looks into a hand mirror as as shirtless man stokes a fire behind her. But the flatness of the painting style (especially the subtle tonal shifts) make it almost appear as if she is wielding a knife; her mirror is weapon-like indeed, serving as a powerful symbol of the power of youth and its transfixing beauty. Fourteen year-old Odile Bugnon - the painting’s model -seems doll-like, depicted as she is with an immense head, large eyes, long limbs, and tiny body. But there are subtle signs she isn’t as delicate as she appears. The tonal shift between her arm (light) and large hand (dark) is sudden and dramatic, further heightening the line between the light of fire and the light of the sun, hinting at an inner hardness and fire. As it is Balthus has chosen illuminating beacons of the natural world as tools through which to highlight not only Odile’s natural ease and kewpie-like beauty, but to celebrate her lack of self-awareness. She may be holding a mirror, but she has none of the vanity — or indeed, thirst for power — of the adult world; she already possesses them naturally, by virtue of her youthful being.
Such power is explored a number of ways in the exhibition. It isn’t vanity but violence that is hinted at in the exhibit’s second room. Images of innocence and vulnerability contrast strongly with scenes of menace and danger. “Still Life With A Figure” (1940) and “Girl in Green And Red” (1944) both feature young female figures and loaves of bread. with a knife menacingly poking out of the loaf, impaling it in a sort of ritualistic sacrifice that contrasts with the innocent human figure in the works. The latter work is made more powerful through its contrasting colors, and the striking stare of its subject. It’s worth contrasting this work with the portrait of Thérèse from 1938; though both portray a direct stare of its respective subjects, the former is panged and awkward, while the latter is coolly confident. One only wishes the curator had placed the paintings a bit closer together to facilitate further contemplation.
The Salon I  1941-1943. Oil on canvas  44 1/2 × 57 3/4 in. (113 × 146.7 cm). Minneapolis Institute...
The Salon I, 1941-1943. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 × 57 3/4 in. (113 × 146.7 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and William Hood Dunwoody Fund.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski).
Offering more illumination are the The Salon I (1941-43) and The Salon II (1942), which are positioned directly across from one another. We see, in the second, a cat sitting, eyes contentedly closed, in the bottom left corner, as Balthus’ nubile females read and recline (respectively) in almost exactly the same scene. “Salon I” is flatly rendered and has more illumination of the floor reader, but both, once more, offer a vision of children at ease, comfortable with themselves and their environments, daring the viewer to impose something else — desire, discomfort, derision — on their benign activities.
A smiling feline greets us in the third room, titled “Return to Paris 1946-53.” The bright, kitschy painting, “The Cat of La Méditerranée” (1949), features a cat-like figure (a stand-in for the artist himself) seated at a table, cutlery in hands (or rather, paws), female off to the left in a row boat, smiling, as a bright rainbow slowly transforms into a colorful school of fish. The cat has a toothy, gleeful grin, savoring his power over table, seaside, nature itself. “Nude with Cat” from 1949 sees the cat laughing with delight as a nude figure swoons, leaning back; the cat seems more aware of the girl’s potential and transformation. Not everything in this room radiates so much tacky, resplendent joy, however. “The Victim” portrays a nude female, alone and frighteningly vulnerable, on crumpled white sheets. It’s as if she’s another piece of inspirational detritus culled from the history of European classicism, peopled as it is with powerful male artists who cast aside their muses as quickly as they cast aside oil-stained rags. The cat of La Méditerranée may be smiling just steps away, but there’s something jarring about the sharp contrast, as if the exhibition won’t let you indulge in the technicolor whimsy too long — or at least, not without some sort of meditative cost.
Nude with Cat  1949. Oil on canvas 25 9/16 x 31 1/8 in. (65 x 69 cm). National Gallery of Victoria  ...
Nude with Cat, 1949. Oil on canvas 25 9/16 x 31 1/8 in. (65 x 69 cm). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1952.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski)
The fourth room of the exhibit, called “The Chassy Period”, sees the artist playing with texture and blending different painting styles and effects. The work here is far softer and less angular than earlier works -and, somehow, far less beguiling. It’s as if the artist is trying on different styles (particularly the textured surfaces so particular to Impressionism) to see how they with his own ideas around youth and beauty. The issue is, these paintings just aren’t as interesting - stylistically or content-wise -as earlier works. Something about them lacks bite, and including them in “Cats And Girls” feels like more of an afterthought than a continued illumination of the artist’s life and work. Balthus’ models (mainly Balthus’ niece, Frédérique Tison) seem frustratingly homogenous and anonymous, lost in a whirlwind of texture and diffused light; he seems content they come off as wishy-washy sylphs, rather than letting the models be the complicated, living, breathing, fleshy, willful creatures they are. It’s a disappointing piece of what is an otherwise fascinating exhibition, though perhaps “Cats And Girls” is redeemed by its inclusion of the whimsical if wondrously moving “Mitsou” series.
Mitsou 1  1919. Black ink on paper 6 x 4 3/4 in. (15.2 x 12.1 cm). Private collection.
Mitsou 1, 1919. Black ink on paper 6 x 4 3/4 in. (15.2 x 12.1 cm). Private collection.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski)
Forty ink drawings, measuring roughly five inches square, and done when Balthus was ten years old, tell the story of him gaining, then losing, his first pet, a stray cat. Tragedy, playfulness, and black humor marvelously combine, as we see him finding the cat, studying with it, observing its gift of a dead mouse, and the panic (and ultimately sadness) that sets in when it runs away. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a close friend (and, according to curator Rewald, lover of Balthus' mother), was so entranced with the drawings when they were first done that he arranged for them to be published, providing his own introduction in the process. Thought to be lost, Rewald located the series through communications with Rilke's heirs. As Smith writes, "the images are as impressive for their sustained narrative, clarity of emotion and easy conjuring of different settings as for their effortless pan-modernist style. They alternately evoke the Nice interiors of Matisse, the alpine scenes of some German Expressionists and the woodcuts of the Flemish graphic artist Frans Masereel."
Mitsou 23  1919. Black ink on paper 6 x 4 3/4 in. (15.2 x 12.1 cm). Private collection.
Mitsou 23, 1919. Black ink on paper 6 x 4 3/4 in. (15.2 x 12.1 cm). Private collection.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski)
This is easily the most beguiling part of the entire exhibition, one that nicely ties up the many disparate threads of later works. As Gallerist slyly noted, referring to what “might be read in relation to the loss of his mother to her lover Rainer Maria Rilke [...] the Oedipal loss of this first pussy, then, is sublimated in art, a pun made for Lacanian edification.” It’s worth pondering as one admires the delicate ink strokes across these forty tiny sheets, and mourns with the young Balthus at the disappearance of his beloved pet.
Mitsou 40  1919. Black ink on paper 6 x 4 3/4 in. (15.2 x 12.1 cm). Private collection.
Mitsou 40, 1919. Black ink on paper 6 x 4 3/4 in. (15.2 x 12.1 cm). Private collection.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski)
Complementing the “Mitsou” series are the two paintings hanging on the walls within the tiny, darkened room. The dark-toned painting “The Goldfish” (1948) is notable in that it features no girl -only a young boy, his round potato-head almost looking and severed, sitting on the table; with the beguiling illumination of a single candle, there’s a deliciously macabre humor at work in the scene. It looks especially contemporary, like something out of “Nightmare Before Christmas” or the work of Edmund Gorey. The cat in the scene wears a wicked grin and the painting is done in rich, dark colors.
"Cats and Girls" offers a mix of violence, innocence, playfulness, eroticism, loss, attachment, whimsy, and dark humor, all at once. In 2001, Salon noted that "Balthus was forever borrowing and twisting the past into his version of an incredibly erotically charged present." These paintings offer that charged present, challenging the viewer in the perceptions they bring to works: the power of the gaze, the power of these little goddesses in making us question our ideas around the erotic and its relationship to power, the power we imbue them, and take with us through our own "present" and presence. You'll come away from the exhibition contemplating the taut lines between provocation, power, art, youth, and awareness in a whole new way. Somewhere, Balthus is smiling.
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