Metropolitan Museum   Balthus: Cats and Girls  Sept 25, 2012 - Jan 12, 2014      


Nude with Cat
oil on canvas
25½ x 31¼ in.

Balthus at the Met

One admires certain painters despite their compulsions. Consider the great 19th-century painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose obsessively polished forms suggest a man who—in Rouault's memorable words—wore his vest too tight, and liked it that way.

Come across certain paintings by Balthus, and one may feel a similar ambivalence. Such titillation, expressed with such composure: shouldn’t the guy get a life—preferably a life far removed from the underaged?

Experience several of Balthus’ paintings together, however, and other qualities will emerge. As an orchestrator of line and color, Balthus was one of the few modern painters to rival the eloquence and intensity of the masters. In the pictorial terms of painting, he characterized street scenes, landscapes, interiors, still lifes—and yes, pre-adolescent girls—with extraordinary power and insight. Spanning roughly the first half of the artist’s productive life, the nearly three dozen paintings in the Met’s “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations” reminds us why Robert Hughes, John Russell, and Nicholas Fox Weber all considered Balthus among the greatest painters of his time.

As the subtitle suggests, the exhibition concentrates on Balthus’ images of nubile girls and eerily knowing cats. Though alternately entertaining and unsettling, they represent only one aspect of his work.  For me, the real revelations of this show lie elsewhere. Although always an admirer, I was surprised by how complete and complex and experimental a painter Balthus proves to be, even within the relatively narrow focus of this exhibition. Even great painters tend to marshal and guard their talents—Matisse’s tremendous instinct for color sometimes shelters his less rigorous drawing; Picasso, the genius draftsman, was usually shrewd enough to stick to a simple palette. To a remarkable degree, Balthus shows himself a prodigy of both drawing and color, a diverse master who lets first one, then the other, take the lead. The earliest works (the “Mitsou” drawings, executed at age eleven) show, in black and white, the planar approach of a colorist. The same pursuit of the arabesque marks the flattened forms of the latest paintings in the show, dating from 1955 to 60. By contrast, many of the works produced in-between reflect the thoroughly modeled contours of a natural draftsman. In two preliminary oil sketches, the artist fully draws with color, completely melding impulses of color and line. Balthus may lack the expansiveness of temperament of either Matisse or Picasso, but arguably he surpasses either in his comprehension of painting traditions.

Balthus, of course, has his critics. One has even claimed that, were it not for his “sexual perversion,” he’d be “just a dime-a-dozen figure painter, another Edward Hopper.” This point of view misses every virtue behind his provocations. How to make an arm stretch into space? Any academic painter could model its volumes, and a sensitive one could use color to impart atmosphere. But Balthus not only models and illuminates, but evokes, through a rhythmic unfolding of forms, an arm's tangible extension across the canvas. A painting like “The Victim” (1939-46) imparts momentous energy to the horizontal movement of a reclining figure, a luminous array of reddish earth colors in front of a slightly darker wall. Enveloping the figure are broad arcs of brilliantly white fabric, anchoring, at opposite ends, an angled foot and a cantilevering arm. Other events—the small, sudden shadow beneath a bent wrist, the repeating fabric folds—measure out the vast stretch of the figure in-between. The artist imparts a conciseness of purpose to detail unlike anything one finds in Hopper’s paintings, and a weighting of intervals with color only occasionally achieved by Lucian Freud or Francis Bacon—but regularly by the likes of Courbet, Corot, Goya, and Titian.

“Cats and Girls” reveals too, how Balthus—like these masters—hides free-form investigations beneath a seamless technique. Close examination of “The Salon I“ (1941-43) reveal the overpainting of one entire figure and the relocation of other figures’ limbs. Shadowed portions covering half of the silver dish in “Still Life with a Figure” (1940) turn out to be unpainted canvas—a strange negligence in these hyper-considered surfaces, were it not for their fitting perfectly, bare canvas and all, within the scheme of light. In the same painting, the impossible proportions of an arm and flattening of a girl’s face ring false by academic standards, even as they surely advance the rhythms—the pictorial truth—of the image.

Other examples of utilitarian forms—elements that elucidate through rhythmic import rather than illustrational references—include the boxes resting on dressers in “The Week of Four Thursdays” and “Nude with Cat” (both 1949), two riveting images of a figure stretching languorously beneath the onlooker’s point of view. In both canvases, the distant, unadorned boxes advance the rhythms in crucial ways. In the first, the singularly warm note of the box quietly holds a center about which all dramas unfold, variously above and below eye level; in the second, looking from high above onto a yawning basin on the floor, it palpably establishes the height of the interior—and so the urgency of angling leg below, the weight of light on the tilting torso, the lateral distance to the extending arm.

Every Balthus painting is, in effect, built from the ground up out of such coalescing, primal forces. Stylistically, the results can be arcane, and even primitive, but compositionally they often resound with the complex expression of great traditional art. The outcome can also be highly naturalistic, as in “Girl in Green and Red” (1944), one of the few works by any modern painter that could actually compare favorably with a work by, say, Giovanni Bellini in its eloquence and breadth of description. These qualities resonate in Balthus' grave measuring of a silver dish, loaf of bread, and candlestick across a table, in the weighty rise of the figure behind, and its culmination in the keen stare within the vital circulation of the face. Admittedly, such powers of articulation may not matter to everyone these days, but for viewers who distinguish between the comparative lassitude of Jacopo Bassano and the electricity and authority of his teacher Veronese, and between the skillful sentiment of Nicolaes Maes and the discernment of his teacher Rembrandt, the achievement of Balthus thrills.

In a sense, Balthus pays homage to all of nature, from a loaf to a drawn curtain to a girl’s lifted dress. Did he have a lascivious interest in the last of these? We know for sure that he wanted us to think so. And, in fact, in terms of publicity, the prurient imagery worked—for better and for worse: a dozen years after his death it’s the thematic center of the Met’s installation, and for some museum-goers, it will linger as the show’s most memorable aspect. But we should weigh the certainty and uniqueness of his creations against speculations about his intentions. To do so is to know him as a painter—observer, synthesizer, re-creator—rather than just a voyeur.

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