Balthus: Cats and Girlsâ€”Paintings and Provocations
Balthus: Cats and Girlsâ€”Paintings and ProvocationsÂ explores the origins and permutations of the French artistâ€™s focus on felines and the dark side of childhood. Balthusâ€™s lifelong fascination with adolescence resulted in his most iconic works: girls on the threshold of puberty, hovering between innocence and knowledge. In these pictures, Balthus mingles intuition into his young sittersâ€™ psyches with an erotic undercurrent and forbidding austerity, making them some of the most powerful depictions of childhood and adolescence committed to canvas. Often included in these scenes are enigmatic cats, possible stand-ins for the artist himself. The exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art will be organized chronologically and will focus on the early decades of the artistâ€™s career, from the mid-1930s to the 1950s, and will feature approximately 35 paintings, as well as 40 ink drawings for the bookÂ MitsouÂ that were created in 1919, when Balthus was 11 years oldâ€”thought to be lost, these drawings have never before been on public display.
The exhibition is made possible by the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, and Diane Carol Brandt.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908-2001) and his elder brother, Pierre (1905-2001),Â were born in Paris into an artistic and intellectual milieu. Their father, Erich Klossowski (1875â€“1946), was an art historian and painter whose family had escaped from Poland in 1830 during an unsuccessful revolt against Russia and who obtained German citizenship in East Prussia. The boysâ€™ mother, Elisabeth Dorothea Klossowska (1886â€“1969), was also a painter and was known as Baladine.
As an eight-year-old, in 1916, Balthus had posed with his pet cat for a watercolor by his mother. Three years later he worked his adventures with a stray cat he called MitsouÂ into 40 pen-and-ink drawings. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a family friendâ€”who not long after became Baladineâ€™s loverâ€”was so enchanted by these drawings that he arranged for them to be published in 1921 in the bookÂ Mitsou, for which he provided a preface in French. At Erich Klossowskiâ€™s request, the cover of the book gave the young artistâ€™s name as â€œBaltusz,â€ as he then spelled his nicknameâ€”which was a shortened version of his given name, Balthasar. At Rilkeâ€™s suggestion, Balthus signed his work from then on with this childhood nickname, at some point changing the spelling to â€œBalthus,â€ as we know it today. Â Rilke played an important role in Balthusâ€™s life, as a crucial creative influence and also as a surrogate father following Baladine and Erichâ€™s separation.
Cats remained a force and presence in the artistâ€™s work and life beyond his Mitsou drawings. In 1935, when Balthus was 27 years old, he painted his self-portraitÂ The King of Cats. In it, he stands with his right hand on his hip, his left hand gripping his lapel, as a tiger cat rubs its head against his right knee. Later in his career, in the large decorative panelThe Cat of La MÃ©diterranÃ©eÂ (1949), the artist includes a self-portrait of himself as a happy cat on whose plate a rainbow of fish lands.
Between 1936 and 1939, Balthus painted the celebrated series of 10 portraits of ThÃ©rÃ¨se Blanchard (1925-1950), his young neighbor in Paris. They are regarded as his most perceptive and sensitive portrayals of a young sitter and are among his finest works. AtÂ this point in Balthusâ€™s career, the artist was chafing under the burden of portrait commissions, which he resented. So his neighborâ€™s youth must have been a welcome respite. But then, Balthus always felt a kinship with children; even as a child himself, he had been conscious of childhoodâ€™s importance. The portraits of ThÃ©rÃ¨se show her reading or daydreaming, posing alone, with her cat, or with her brother Hubert. In his first portrait of ThÃ©rÃ¨se of 1936, the artist used the same palette for the 11-year-old as for his portrait commissions: dark brown, ocher, and black, with a flash of red in the piping on her collar. But the mood is certainly very different from that of the adult portraits.
ThÃ©rÃ¨se became the inspiration of the leitmotif in his oeuvre until the years toward the end of his life, as the artist found other models and muses. In Balthusâ€™s work, all of the girls who play with cats peer into mirrors, read, daydream, or appear completely self-absorbed. Their ostensibly unself-conscious postures sometimes suggest sensuality and languor, sometimes ungainlinessâ€”a contradiction that is perfectly in keeping with the phenomenon of puberty. Balthus rendered his young models with as much dignity and importance as someone their own age would have perceived them. The exhibition traces Balthusâ€™s progression and the evolution of his chosen subject matter, ending withÂ The MothÂ in 1959, the artistâ€™s only night scene.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY
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