09 December 2013

Cats and Girls

"Thérèse" Balthus (1938)

“Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations,” an exhibit of works by the Polish-French painter Balthus currently at the Met, focuses on two of the major themes in the artist's work with uneven results.  

It opens with a self-portrait, “His Majesty the King of Cats” (1935), which shows a thin, almost dandy-like Balthus with a cat rubbing against his leg and a stone tablet that reads ““A Portrait of H. M. The King of Cats, Painted by Himself.” The painting establishes the artist’s connection with the feline world; some think that the cats featured in Balthus' works are actually stand-ins for the artist himself.

While cats show up in a handful of the paintings, girls can be found in the majority of the works with the best ones in the first gallery—a series of paintings he made of his young neighbour Thérèse Blanchard. Sometimes seen lounging in a chair, other times exposing a shock of white underwear, 
Thérèse appears bored, the epitome of sullen youth. The portraits also have a Lolita quality about them, leaving a feeling of unease with the viewer. Finding out that Thérèse died at the age of 25 makes these paintings all the more striking knowing the bold little girl never grew old.

These works are so strong that the ones in the other galleries subsequently pale in comparison, sometimes quite literally. Even the large portraits done in the 1950s of Frédérique Tison, Balthus’ favourite model, and others where the girls are partially dressed or nude lack the impact of the Thérèse works. 

Yet the painting that I found the most shocking is “The Cat of La Méditerranée” (1949) made for a restaurant that the artist frequented. Featuring Balthus with a cat’s head and a rainbow made of fish, it is simply bizarre and was a surprise to see hanging on the wall of the Met.

"First drawing from Mitsou" Balthus (1921)

For me, the best part of the exhibit is found in a small, darkened gallery: 40 ink drawings done when Balthus was just 11 that tell the story of Mitsou, a stray cat whom he discovered one day and who became his companion until one morning when he just vanished, breaking the little boy’s heart. Published as a book in 1921 by Rainer Maria Rilke (a friend of Balthus’ mother), they are lovely to see with their almost woodcut quality and tell a sweet story. In the end, they made the exhibit worth seeing.

The exhibit is at the Met through January 12, 2014. For more information, visit here.

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