September 25th, 2013 to January 12, 2014 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Curated by Sabine Rewald
A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:
just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.
She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once
as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Balthasar Klossowski was born February 29, 1908 in Paris and died February 18, 2001 (Let his funeral be an indicator of his societal import; national dignitaries, top echelon artists, and celebrities alike came to pay their respect). He was an artist who reached a tremendous level of significance, and so I find a cultural opinion of him rooted within, though I have had few chances to see his work in the flesh. Art that has been christened canonical can be difficult to see subjectively; word of value moves through collective judgment and into the mind of the individual.
Here are some culturally affixed values/stigmas/notions that accompanied me into the Balthus exhibition, Cats and Girls:
1.) Balthus is a child molester.
2.) Balthus is a masterful painter.
3.) Balthus is an elite eccentric.
I entered the show with a question attached to these preconceptions: Where in this work is the portrait of the man that can deny, assuage, or confirm what I think I know? To complicate my curiosities, it is well established that Balthus reveled in the enigma of his personhood, claiming it a distraction from the content of his production.
Cats and Girls is a retrospective of the artist’s work from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. It includes a monumental three year portraiture cycle of Thérèse Blanchard (a remote, sad-eyed child and Nabokovian nymphet), two rooms of large-scale oil paintings, and a series of forty ink drawings completed by an 11 year-old Balthus concerning his memories of and subsequent abandonment by a stray cat named Mitsou. This is the first exhibit to show the full Mitsou drawing set, which was originally published by poet Rainer Maria Rilke (the temporary lover of Balthus’ mother, Baladine Klossowska). The graphic boldness, compositional mastery, perspectival mobility, and imagination in these drawings leave little to no doubt that the young Balthus was a savant of sorts, with a genius compositional mind that blossomed early and maintained its piercing aptitude.
Balthus was from a cultured French family that regularly socialized with many of the most influential writers, thinkers, and artists of 20th century Europe: Rilke, Bonnard, Lacan (the list goes on). He was keen on literature, though remained singularly engaged with painting as a means of creative production. He was satisfied with only a few drawings as finished works, and drew mostly for the purpose of generating compositional structure for more ambitious paintings. After deciding on composition, he would walk on his sketches and ruin them with the impressions of his shoes. He was of money, influence, intelligence and with the right people at the right places at the right times. Be it effort, fate, serendipity, or status (or perhaps a combination of them all), Balthus seemed certainly on course to leave the footprint of his influence on more than just his sketches.
I walked through Balthus’ beautifully curated exhibition and was left stunned, alarmed, jealous, and even angered by what I saw. Little girls, painted in what feels like the artists’ subservient meditation, are egregiously exposed. Their innocence and their nakedness (of spirit and of body) exist in a commingling ether of exploitation, fascination, sexuality and love. I, the viewer, became Balthus, the observer, pondering our own disquietude. Together (myself, Balthus, the cats, and the little girls) we set in the grip of a decadent coldness, no matter the warming flames in a nearby painted fireplace.
I feel I have come to an awareness of where Balthus is located in these works, no matter how he worked to mask himself in enigma. Both the children and the cats serve as his reliquaries, as phantasmagoric locators of an acutely aware, observant and curious identity. Balthus uses these motifs as coordinate points on an intricate geography of persona. In life he acknowledged the felines as personal place holders within the realm of his reverie, though I fear I feel his presence strongest, not observing, but within the stoic skin of the objectified child.
The artist as cat, like in Rilke’s poem, beats back within himself the madness of an ancient wild. He, the independent and bright predator holds within the reflection of his slit pupil the face of innocence. When he was a child he first drew his cat Mitsou because of the trauma he felt from it abandoning him. Seemingly from there forward he was fixated on the diametrically opposed motivations of innocence and predation, dependence and ferocity, youth and knowledge.
I have found the answers to two of my three preconceptions about the artist:
1.) Balthus was a masterful painter.
2.) Balthus was an elite eccentric.
I am unfortunately no closer to deciding for myself whether he victimized children, I do, however, deeply hope that he did not. It is important to mention that few accuse Nabokov of being a pedophile.
A mad, mysterious, and horrifying genius ignites this art. Balthus, in the context of his paintings, is predator, victim, cat and girl; he is hard to praise and hard not to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jacob Hicks is a Brooklyn-based painter, writer and curator. His work has been exhibited at RH Gallery and Sloan Fine Arts in NYC, One Mile Gallery in Kingston, NY, Halle 14 in Leipzig, Germany, Dominican University in River Forest, IL, and Saint Elizabeth College in NJ. Jacob received his BFA from Southern Methodist University in Texas, and his MFA from the New York Academy of Art in NYC