Balthus. Coy, but no Cigar.

By esartia

There are two days left to see “Balthus: Cats and Girls- Paintings and Provocations” ” at the Metropolitan Museum before it closes on. This is the first major exhibition of Baltusz Klossowski de Rola’s aka Balthus’, work in a US museum since 1984 and it has left much to be desired. The show focuses on a certain period of time from 1937 to1959 and for that reason perhaps the show feels incomplete. Even if the audience bought into the desire to concentrate on the time table provided by the curators, the show still lacks the earlier self proclaimed flirtation with pornography by Balthus, “The Guitar Lesson”. With this painting in play the show would deserve the title of Provocation. Without it, I would stick to first part of the title. Cats and Girls-Painitngs.


The one stop I would make, if you have time, is the 11 year old Balthus’ 40 page illustration Mitsou.


This is the first public showing of the work, believed to have been lost. It takes a minute to consider that an eleven year old in 1919 was able to create these small ink drawings that tell the story of Balthus finding a cat named Mitsou and his profound agony and pain when the cat disappears. The work is so expressive (with a hint of Matisse)  that it is no wonder that Rainer Maria Rilke, who was visiting Balthus’ recently separated mother, offered to put his words to the story and had it printed in 1921. This story in the illustrations could also explain the artist’s fascination with cats, but looking at the Thérèse paintings, with which the show opens, the cats seem to represent more loss of innocence then the loss of a pet.

In “Thérèse Dreaming,” 1938, a cat sits next to a resting Thérèse licking its milk while she rests her leg high enough for the artist to paint her white panties. The painting is erotic no doubt about it, but it also poses the question of what is more erotic, nudity or the suggestion of it?


What has always intrigued me about this subject in Balthus’ work, while being told in my undergrad that it is about erotica, was the contorted uncomfortable poses Balthus put his subjects in. If there is supposed to be pleasure expressed in their faces, their body language seems to be that of on a verge of falling apart. And no matter what they are experiencing  and if alone or in company of others the girls, are always in their private world, as if they have gone inside somewhere and are not active participants in the real.

Looking at Thérèse  and the muses who followed her, Balthus’ Cats and Girls transport me to Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on Shore, so elegant is the eroticism described in both artists’ works  and so private is the world of their subjects while dominated by all knowing cats and immutable private lives, that it would be impossible having seen one and read the other not to find an eerie fascination with the similarities both artists posses. If its fantasy we are supposed to disappear into, Balthus does more than provide the illusions for it.

Show ends January 12th.



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