November 27, 2013

"Balthus: Cats and Girls" at The Met

The paintings of Balthasar Klossowski, known as Balthus, are always curious and often disturbing.  With a focus on the dark side of childhood, particularly adolescent girls teetering on the edge of full womanhood, Balthus' beautifully painted studies are never really pornographic but are not very comfortable to look at either.  His portrayals of semi-undressed girls reading, playing cards or languidly dreaming are far too erotically charged for children yet are mesmerizing in their frankness and insight into the sitters' psyches.  Often included in these scenes are cats, possibly representing the artist himself, who preen and tease with a look of self-satisfaction that only a feline can achieve!

For the first time in thirty years Balthus' work is being exhibited in the United States in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art .  "Balthus:  Cats and Girls - Paintings and Provocations" explores the origins and development of Balthus' signature themes from the mid-1930's to the 1950s.  Chronologically arranged, the show begins with Balthus' self portrait as the "King of Cats" (see above) and ends with another self portrait depicting the artist as a happy cat with a fish dinner in a large decorative mural done for the Parisian restaurant "La Méditerranée" on the Place de l'Odéon.  At the same time, we see his most famous model, his young neighbor Thérèse Blanchard,  portrayed along with her cat in a very provocative situation, and later paintings of his favorite model Frédérique Tison cast in similarly intensive scenes.

"Thérèse Dreaming", 1938

In addition to these typically suggestive works is a never before seen group of forty small pen and ink drawings created by Balthus at the age of eleven.  These charming drawings tell the story of the artist and his pet cat who appeared as a stray and disappeared almost as suddenly leaving his young master distressed.  This charming suite of drawings showed such artistic promise that they were published by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1921 in his book "Mistou".

Balthus' work is an acquired taste and his subject matter can be challenging, but this exhibition presents a fair and balanced overview of one of the 20th century's most renowned artists and is definitely one of the "must see" shows of the season.

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