Shock of the Mew!
“Balthus: Cats and Girls,” the exhibition opening September 25 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was originally called just that.
The title is accurate: Felines and females abound in the work of the French-born, classically inspired, figurative painter, who was a familiar art-world name at the time of his death, at 92, in 2001. In this country, though, he hasn’t had a big show in three decades.
So the general public might not be aware that these cats aren’t cute or grumpy at all. Rather they are sinister voyeurs of pensive adolescent girls, rendered in enigmatic and erotically charged poses.
Suggestive and disturbing, to our contemporary sensibility they may well seem even more provocative than they did the last time the Met did a big Balthus show, in 1984. To acknowledge that some viewers might find some content offensive, the museum added a subtitle: “Paintings and Provocations.”
Focusing on work from the mid-’30s to the ’50s, the exhibition coincides with the publication by Rizzoli of Balthus and Cats, which traces the cat motif throughout the artist’s career. The Met will show–for the first time in public–the charming ink drawings Balthus made at the age of 11 for Mitsou, his story about a stray tomcat; the book was published in 1921 by Rainer Maria Rilke, a close family friend.
Later Balthus began to pair these felines with tweens or teens poised in what curator Sabine Rewald describes as “self-absorbed languor,” draped over chairs, lost in a dream state, unself-consciously (or not) lifting their skirts to reveal their white panties. His models grew up and moved on, but Balthus stayed fixated on his nymphets. The cats beside them—sometimes rubbing suggestively, sometimes lapping at milk, sometimes staring amused (the way the models never do) at the viewer–play off the idea of budding female sexuality. Even more so, they act as stand-ins for the artist himself.
Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming, 1938, oil on canvas.
COURTESY THE ARTIST AND METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, JACQUES AND NATASHA GELMAN COLLECTION 1998.