|Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1938|
By and large, though, "Balthus: Cats and Girls -- Paintings and Provocations" -- the first Balthus exhibit at the Met since his 1984 retrospective and the first devoted to this theme -- doesn't include the major works that both made his career and gave him this reputation. With the especially sore omissions of "The Street," 1933, and "The Guitar Lesson," 1934, large masterworks whose sexual content created a scandal when first exhibited and established Balthus as an artist to pay attention to, we are left with an incomplete exploration of Balthus and his nymphets and confronted with often second-rate, sometimes vapid works.
The exhibit has 34 paintings arranged chronologically from the 1930s to the 1950s, the earlier part of his career. (Balthus, born Balthasar Klossowski in Paris, worked until his died in Switzerland in 2001.) About half the works are from private collections, many loaned anonymously.
Balthus himself consistently rejected the notion that his paintings of girls were erotic. "That reaction is so boring and stupid," he told writer Richard Covington in 1994. ". . . My young models signify an interior grace and an attempt to recapture a part of their lost paradise. The idea I am trying to get across has to do with religion, not at all with eroticism."
Try keeping that in mind as you wend your way past Therese's panties, girls with the arched backs of sexual excitement, the hands of reclining girls poised over their genitalia, ready to masturbate, and girls with guitars, ripe fruit, pitchers, and other symbols of female sexuality.
Some are clearly painted as seductresses, as in the cringe-worthy crotch shot of "Girl with Cat," 1945. But there are no full-on come-hither looks, which sets these paintings in an entirely different category from Lewis Carroll's near-pornographic photos of the young Alice Liddell. In many paintings, if we didn't know Balthus's models were girls, we could assume they were young women -- they are full-breasted, which takes us far afield from Sally Mann's photos of her naked children that some find exploitative.
Frequently, there's a cat as voyeur, smiling commentator, or, as in "Therese Dreaming," eager participant. The catalogue persuasively argues that it is sometimes a stand-in for the artist, and the Met has included a small self-portrait of the artist as a dandy from 1935 that bears the inscription "A Portrait of H.M. The King of Cats by Himself."
Balthus clearly had a special attachment to cats. A highlight of the show is a series of 40 never-before-exhibited ink drawings that tell the story of a boy finding, loving, and then losing a cat, which the precocious Balthus drew when he was 11. Fresh and moving, they display a disarming mastery of composition and a bold use of light and dark.
The show begins with portraits of his young Parisian neighbor Therese from 1936 to 1939, richly and realistically characterized as aloof, pensive, in a world of her own, and anachronistic except in the subject of Therese and her panties. It ends with mostly vacuous works from the 50s, when Balthus had moved to the countryside. They bear hints of Cezanne's fracturing of space and Matisse's patterned costumes against patterned grounds, but Balthus seems curiously uncommitted to the techniques of the Modernists except as decorative devices.
In between are paintings that would scarcely be noteworthy were they not painted by someone of Balthus's stature. An exception is a beauty of a painting titled "The Victim," a nude begun in 1939 and finished shortly after World War II. The subtly colored, pallid skin against a white sheet recalls how the Old Masters depicted Christ taken from the Cross. Largely self-taught, Balthus learned to paint by copying the Old Masters in the Louvre and Piero della Francesca in Arezzo.
"The Guitar Lesson" is probably Balthus's best-known and least-seen painting -- it was exhibited in Paris in 1934 and again in 1977 by his dealer Pierre Matisse in New York and hasn't been seen in public since. "I didn't want it," said Met curator Sabine Rewald. "It has an adult," she explained, which probably also accounts for the absence of "The Street" (it's at MoMA). "This show is about children and cats."
Balthus was capable of startling achievements in works like "The Street" and the Met's own "The Mountain." At his best he upsets expectations, creates mystery, and can simultaneously attract and repel the viewer. Here we see him mostly as a second-rate artist and perhaps at his most divisive, a status that the narrowly conceived "Cats and Girls" will do little to change.