Balthus: Cats and Girls

 Reviewed by John McIntyre

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Balthus was not a provocateur by design, at least, not by his own reckoning. He writes in his memoir, Vanished Splendors: “Only once did I paint a picture as a means of provocation, in 1934, when Galerie Pierre displayed my paintings Alice, The Street, and Cathy’s Washing and Dressing. Behind a curtain was The Guitar Lesson, judged ‘too daring’ at a time when Cubist and Surrealist frenzies offered their provocations.”

 

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“As a liar, he is without equal,” the writer and art critic John Russell said of Balthus. A man of sound judgment and considerable insight, Russell arranged an exhibition of the painter’s work at the Tate in 1968 and wrote an admiring obituary of the painter in The New York Times in early 2001. His judgment of Balthus the man remained separate from his thoughts on Balthus the artist.

 

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Two of Balthus’s great subjects, cats and girls, unsurprisingly formed the heart of the 2013 exhibition, Balthus: Cats and Girls – Paintings and Provocations. The accompanying book, with extensive and insightful text  by Sabine Rewald, contains the observation that this  series of pictures were imbued,  “with obvious eroticism and a touch of cruelty, even sadomasochism.”

 

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Balthus told the art critic Michael Kimmelman, “My little model is absolutely untouchable to me,” as though it were only through touch that one might express an unsettling affinity. Was he being disingenuous? Elusive? Does it matter either way? There is a precision to Balthus’s images, in emotional terms, which is absent in Henry Darger’s strange and unsettling work, though there is also a particular watchfulness common to the two men’s visions.

 

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The voyeuristic feel of so much of the Balthus’s work chases up thoughts of Alain Robbe-Grillet and his work with the nouveau roman. The painter, it’s worth noting, makes more compelling use of that particular point of view.

 

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“I often insist on the necessity of prayer,” Balthus writes in Vanished Splendors, “To paint as one prays. By doing so, to accede to silence and what is invisible in the world.” There’s something tantalizing in these statements, some refusal to account fully for what drove him as a painter. Fair enough, of course. The explanation of a painting, even the artist’s own explanation, is a faint pleasure next to the canvas itself.

 

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He valued stillness and the luxury of time spent not just alone, but in relative isolation. “For most of his life he lived either in Paris or in a succession of increasingly grand and often remote country houses in France, Switzerland and Italy,” Russell observes. He meditated before works in progress, a protracted communion which feels reflected in the unruffled calm of his canvases. That apparent calm is all the more memorable for the tension so often implicit in his work.

 

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We may never see precisely what Balthus did when he sat and studied these paintings at length, when he lived with them, but to glance at one and move along is a disservice. Their apparent simplicity is misleading. The Mitsou drawings, which he made at age 11 to tell the story of a stray tomcat, are a compelling surprise. Study the faces in his portraits and it’s hard not to suspect insight on the artist’s part which exceeds the workings of a provocateur. The later paintings often employ a less pleasing color palette and uncharacteristic arrangements. At times they threaten to “[descend] into the anecdotal,” a great fear of the painter’s, but even these late works offer consolations. He was troubling, Balthus is troubling, but his work is also strange and vital. Balthus: Cats and Girls is a reminder,  a challenge, a provocation and a reward for patience.

 

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Sabine Rewald, Balthus: Cats and Girls, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior of Balthus: Cats and Girls.

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