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Don't Bowdlerize Balthus's Paintings—Or His Mystical Ideas

An artist's restless mastery

Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The great modern artists are mystics. They forge a personal relationship with the main currents of artistic tradition. They transform generally agreed-upon ideas into private ideas, subjecting the authority of the past to a process of reaffirmation and renewal. Gershom Scholem, in the opening pages of On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, says that in the hands of the mystic personality “the sacred text is smelted down and a new dimension is discovered in it. In other words: the sacred text loses its shape and takes on a new one for the mystic.” Although an admirer of Scholem’s writing will hesitate to make too easy an analogy between the nature of mystical experience in religion and in the arts, is it not the case that Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Bonnard have “smelted down” the fundamentals of pictorial art in order to discover new dimensions of pictorial art, losing an old shape and discovering a new one? Scholem himself might have accepted the analogy; at least he observes that “in a day when such mystical impulses seem to have dwindled to the vanishing point they still retain an enormous force in the books of Franz Kafka.” Of course Kafka had his own deep relationship with religious experience. But Kandinsky and Mondrian certainly took an interest in forms of mystical experience, and Matisse, Picasso, and Bonnard, for all their modern skepticism, saw art as a matter of mystery and revelation.

The last of the mystics who transformed twentieth-century art was Balthus, who died in 2001 at the age of ninety-two. Mystics are by turns revered, reviled, demonized, and ignored—and at one point or another in his very long career Balthus was regarded in all of those ways. It is only when we embrace his paintings as a daring mystic’s reimagining of the history of art that we understand why he has been such a controversial figure. Let us begin with the most obvious of the misunderstandings that have stood in the way of a full appreciation of his achievement: his paintings of girls. Often dismissed as the work of a pornographer and a pederast, they can be properly appreciated only when we accept them as unabashedly mystical, the flesh a symbol of the spirit, the girl’s dawning self-awareness an emblem of the artist’s engagement with the world.

Balthus’s fascination with the life around him had nothing to do with documenting everyday experiences and everything to do with uncovering the hidden meanings of those experiences. Such meanings, so far as Balthus was concerned, were hermetic and occult, to be decoded like the images in the Tarot deck or the constellations in the night sky. Braque, a painter whom Balthus admired, urged artists to approach their canvases in the same spirit as a medium approaches her tea leaves. We must take Balthus altogether seriously when, late in life, he spoke of “the elucidation of mysteries” and a search for “the secret connections among all things.” He believed that the painters he admired most—Giotto, Masaccio, Poussin—demanded of themselves an almost supernatural precision. “How can one paint,” Balthus wondered, “except with this deliberate and mystical progress?”

Balthus embraced a succession of mystical guises, a variety of masks, veils, and mirrors that he believed enabled him to reveal aspects of a deeper truth. Going through “Balthus: Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations,” the exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a sensitive visitor will have glimpses of Balthus the mystical magician. These begin with the somber realist visions of Thérèse and Thérèse Dreaming, from 1938, and conclude with the anti-naturalistic opulence—by turns coruscated, burnished, and muted—of The Cup of Coffee and The Moth, from 1959 through 1960. “Balthus: Cats and Girls” is cause for celebration, the first museum exhibition in New York devoted to his work since the retrospective at the Metropolitan in 1984. It is also an extraordinarily frustrating event. Sabine Rewald, the curator at the Metropolitan who organized the show, is a rationalist, and therefore incapable of grasping the genius of this artist who is anything but a rationalist—who was one of the greatest dreamers of the twentieth century.

Rewald has little or no patience for Balthus’s mystical ambitions or for the mystical claims for his work that have been made over the years by writers such as Antonin Artaud, Guy Davenport, and Jean Leymarie. My feeling is that Rewald’s goal with this exhibition (she also organized the show of 1984) has been to cut Balthus down to a manageable size. She has set out to transform a wildly ambitious visionary—an artist who was not afraid to provoke scandal in his search for the truth—into a mid-level poetic talent. Rewald, who mounted “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” at the Metropolitan in 2006, has a taste for a vein of chilly, sharply rendered realist visions in twentieth-century art. She may believe that Balthus’s work of the 1930s and early 1940s, which is the central focus here, owes something to what was known in the 1920s as the New Objectivity, especially the work of Christian Schad.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Musuem of Art
The Moth, oil on canvas, 1959-1960.

There is no question that Rewald’s views need to be taken seriously. She is an impressive scholar, whose exhibition at the Metropolitan a few years ago, “Rooms with a View,” about the open window as a motif in nineteenth-century painting, was a curatorial masterstroke. And although Balthus, this European artist, has historically held a special place in New York—it was a New York dealer, Pierre Matisse, who represented him throughout his career, and his first museum show was at the Museum of Modern Art from 1956 to 1957—the truth is that without Rewald’s efforts on Balthus’s behalf we would hardly know his work in New York today. She even had the good sense to mount a tiny salute at the Metropolitan, called “Balthus Remembered,” when he died in 2001. The catalogue of “Balthus: Cats and Girls” is a beautiful piece of work, admirably levelheaded in its treatment of his involvement with his young models. Rewald presents valuable information about these women, especially Thérèse Blanchard, who was born in 1925 and whose working-class family lived near Balthus in the sixth arrondissement of Paris; Rewald speculates that Balthus might have met her at a bistro where her father was a waiter or at a restaurant where he was later a sommelier.

If only Rewald’s feeling for Balthus’s work matched her familiarity with his life. Her great mistake, as I see it, is to imagine that it was in the paintings of the late 1930s and early 1940s that Balthus was most truly himself. She does not understand that for Balthus there was never such a thing as an essential or even a characteristic style. The overwhelming richness of his experiences left him no choice but to embrace a stylistic and thematic pluralism. When he pursued a particular style or motif, it was because he was articulating some fresh aspect of his mystical vision. To grasp the unity of his kaleidoscopic achievement we must be alert to what he referred to as “the secret connections among all things.” Museumgoers who leave this exhibition imagining that they have seen Balthus’s art might be surprised to know that even as he was painting his portraits of girls he was also creating some indelible portraits of men, especially the painters André Derain and Joan Miró. His attentiveness to the experience of certain women was matched by his attentiveness to the experience of certain men, so that the paintings, when taken together, become a celebration of human variety—and, perhaps, of human duality.

Who would imagine, knowing Balthus only from this show, that he was one of the greatest landscape painters of modern times? Again, he was operating dialectically, representing both the room, emblem of culture, and the landscape, emblem of nature. Although this exhibition goes up to 1960, it gives no hint that Balthus also created two of the century’s definitive interpretations of urban life, The Street (1933) and The Passage du Commerce Saint-André (1952–1954). Rewald will respond that what she is offering is a thematic treatment of his achievement. Fair enough, except that she entirely ignores the final series of paintings of a girl and a cat, completed only in the 1990s. I realize that there might have been challenges involved in borrowing these works, but it is difficult to imagine that the Metropolitan Museum of Art could not have obtained at least one or two. I can conclude only that Rewald meant to edit and to truncate even the thematic concerns that she claims guided her selection. Whatever the rationale, I do not think that museumgoers should have been denied the sensual gravitas of Balthus’s final explorations of this enigmatic face-off between a girl and a cat, in which a hand-mirror plays a critical supporting role.

Given the controversies that have accompanied Balthus’s career, I was curious as to how “Balthus: Cats and Girls” would be received. There was apparently some anxiety about this at the Metropolitan, where at the last minute the exhibition, already subtitled “Cats and Girls,” grew another subtitle: “Paintings and Provocations.” As Rewald explains in the catalogue, this was “in acknowledgment that his paintings of adolescents might offend some viewers.” In light of such worries, it has been interesting to see how mild the critical reception has been. To be sure, there have been a few rumblings about the absence of The Guitar Lesson (1934), a painting of a female music teacher sexually assaulting a girl that Balthus long ago dismissed as a youthful caprice. But generally the better-known critics who have weighed in—Roberta Smith in The New York Times and Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker—seem to like Rewald’s diminishing assessment. Rewald has transformed a master for the ages into a period piece, which sits well with some sophisticated museumgoers, who were probably never comfortable with either Balthus’s titanic ambitions or his idiosyncratic eroticism.

Meanwhile, the Gagosian Gallery, just blocks away from the Metropolitan, has mounted a show of Polaroid photographs that Balthus took late in life as preparations for paintings, mostly of a girl who has now, as an adult, signed off on their public display. The show has a portentous title: “Balthus: The Last Studies.” Whatever excitement the gallery hoped to stir—there was a little feature in Vanity Fairthe show is at most a fascinating footnote. We see Balthus using photographs as aides-mémoire, much as Degas, Bonnard, and Vuillard did before him. I imagine that Balthus enjoyed those echoes of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century painting practice. I also suspect that he found in the tight frame and the softened yet heightened color of the Polaroid some of the same charm that drew Walker Evans to the medium late in life. But for gallerygoers who come to these Polaroids without some larger understanding of Balthus’s achievement, they will only serve to add to Rewald’s portrait of Balthus as a slippery and perhaps sordid young man a portrait of Balthus as a silly and perhaps pathetic old man.

The Metropolitan show, which certainly represents a number of high points in the first half of Balthus’s career, also serves to remind us how mightily he sometimes struggled to make a painting do what he wanted it to do. Going through the exhibition, we see Balthus continually testing the limits of his facility and his craft as he explores fresh aspects of his vision. Balthus’s work has no particular “look.” (You need to keep looking.) His smaller studies—some of the sketch-like heads of Thérèse, for example, which could be characterized as brilliant student work—are unabashedly experimental, the products of an artist who was always self-critical, eager to test the limits of his virtuosity. Balthus was constantly pushing himself, shifting his attention, readjusting his ambitions. This mystic struggled mightily to find what he was after. He tried different ways of handling paint, modeling form, structuring light and space. Museumgoers may feel especially alert as they track his shifting approaches and techniques. Artists admire—and are challenged by—Balthus’s open-ended approach to questions of style and craft.

Anybody who takes a long look at Thérèse Dreaming, in which Balthus arranged the young model’s legs so as to reveal a glimpse of white panties, will see that the artist’s attention is far too inclusive to be characterized as pornographic. Balthus brings to those intimate details precisely the same scrupulosity that he brings to every other inch of the canvas. The still life on the table, the girl’s upraised arms, the wicker of the chaise on which she is seated, the pillow that supports her back: each element demands the same unequivocal attention as the space between her legs. This is not to say that the spread of the thirteen-year-old’s legs and the light glancing off her underwear isn’t a shock. But it is no more of a shock than the shuttered look of her head, seen in profile, with the eyes so tightly (grimly, almost angrily) closed as to repel the promise of the dream to which the title alludes.

Rewald is very good at teasing out possible sources for the poses in Thérèse Dreaming and other paintings. She reproduces a Man Ray photo-collage from 1935, which recapitulates the image of a little girl from a Pears Soap advertisement from 1901. At times, though, the significance of the most important sources eludes her. While she mentions Balthus’s passionate engagement with Courbet’s naturalism a half-dozen times in the course of her catalogue, I do not think she grasps the full import of Courbet’s influence. What interested Balthus about Courbet was the melancholy of his materialism—the ennui that fascinated the Surrealists and de Chirico (who wrote a fine essay about Courbet). Balthus’s realism has nothing whatsoever to do with the blunt-force approach we know from the canvases of Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud, and Philip Pearlstein, where the pictorial style is nakedly straightforward, an exact analogy to the frank nudity of the figures. For Balthus, naturalism was itself unnatural. It was an artifice in the sense that it was for Flaubert. The realism of Thérèse Dreaming is so impeccable as to become unreal. The painting is a dream about a girl dreaming—childhood seen through a glass darkly.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Musuem of Art
Thérèse Dreaming, oil on canvas, 1938.

Balthus never again did anything that looks like those paintings of Thérèse from the late 1930s. And it is not easy to generalize about the direction—or rather, the directions—his work took in the 1940s. Rewald’s biographical approach to the paintings, which emphasizes a succession of young women as models (and perhaps muses) for particular works, cannot account for the larger thematic currents that link paintings that Balthus created over periods of decades. The unity of Balthus’s achievement is embodied in the series of signs and symbols that take on a mystical import as they reappear: the table, the chair, the window, the tree, the mirror, the cat, the card game, the closed eyes, the spread legs, the arched back, the confrontation between a boy and a girl, the figure turned away, the figure walking away. In his beautiful book, A Balthus Notebook, Guy Davenport reproduces The Blanchard Children opposite The Painter and His Model, completed more than forty years later, and one immediately realizes that the paintings contain a nearly identical table and chair, the chair having only somewhat shifted its position in relation to the table in all that time. What do the table and chair symbolize? Considering that Balthus once spoke of himself as a carpenter hammering on the same nail, perhaps they symbolize the power of pictorial structure, the essential sturdiness of the art of painting, which is only slightly altered from year to year. It is in the nature of such mystical symbols that their meanings remain simultaneously resonant and obscure, something we grasp only through the act of looking.

Let me suggest a few themes that link works from the 1930s and early 1940s to works done as much as half a century later. In the two versions of The Salon (1941–1943), where one girl is asleep on the couch and the other is reading on the floor, Balthus’s sharp-edged chiaroscuro is already being transformed into something more hieratic and formal. The girl on the floor is no ordinary girl. She is seen in profile, in a pose that brings to mind Ancient Egyptian wall painting and Archaic Greek bas-relief. The girl in The Salon announces a motif, the female figure almost crawling across the floor, which more than a quarter-century later culminates in two of Balthus’s most austere works, Japanese Girl with Black Mirror and Japanese Girl with Red Table (both completed in 1976). But this motif of the figure on the floor can be understood only dialectically, an emblem to be counterposed with another emblem in Balthus’s mystical universe, namely the motif of the table and chair. For if the table and chair—essential elements in paintings of solitary figures playing cards including The Game of Patience (1943) and The Fortune Teller (1956)—suggest homo ludens and civilized play, surely the crawling figures from The Salon to Japanese Girl with Black Mirror suggest not so much culture as nature, the figure as magnificently animal, a triumph of feline grace. There is a cat in the second version of The Salon, sitting up on its haunches, arguably less catlike than the girl. Balthus is attentive to shifting identities, the human as animal and vice versa. Which brings us to Balthus’s later explorations of the theme of the girl and the cat, where the two of them face off, both comfortably ensconced on a chaise or a couch, with the mirror between them raising the question of who resembles whom. Is the girl like a cat? Or is the cat almost human?

Rewald has some useful things to say about the iconography of the cat. As a child Balthus created an extraordinarily precocious series of forty ink drawings, the story of a friendship between a boy and a cat named Mitsou, who eventually vanishes, leaving the boy alone with his tears. Published in 1921 when Balthus was thirteen—with an introduction by none other than Rilke, who was a close friend of Balthus’s mother—Mitsou has long been admired by students of the livre d’artiste. Rewald has discovered the original drawings, until now believed lost, and they are exhibited in public here for the first time. She also includes an early self-portrait in which Balthus appears as a slim dandy with a gigantic tabby snuggling his leg; beside him is a portfolio inscribed “A Portrait of H. M. the King of Cats,” the title derived from a nineteenth-century English fairy tale. Although Rewald points out that in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits of children, cats can suggest “potential evil” and “latent female sexuality,” she seems reluctant to pursue the theme’s larger metaphysical implications. Rewald the rationalist would probably recoil from the grandiosity of Alain Vircondelet, who interviewed Balthus in his later years and argues in a new book, Balthus and Cats, that a cat’s “gaze contains a profound knowledge gleaned from the depths of time, possessing at once the humility and pride to acknowledge by a look alone that it is unique and singular.” These admittedly extravagant claims are very much to the point. Balthus’s cats are descendants of the sacred felines of ancient Egypt—which brings us back to the girl on the floor in The Salon and her ancient Egyptian pose.

The final room in the Metropolitan exhibition provides at least a few glimpses of the glories of Balthus’s later decades. Works such as The Moth and The Cup of Coffee are nowadays often dismissed as overly decorative, as if the dark power of Thérèse Dreaming were the only power that counted. It is a criticism that years ago was often lodged against the work of Matisse and Bonnard. I wonder if the death in 1947 of Bonnard, who had been something of a mentor to Balthus when he was young, might have precipitated this fresh stylistic turn in Balthus’s work in the 1950s, when he lived in a château in the Morvan, a region in central France. Imagine the supple nocturnal chiaroscuro of Georges de La Tour united with the prismatic Cubist surface play of Georges Braque, and you begin to have some sense of the unearthly achievement that is The Moth, in which a naked woman stands in a bedroom, the only illumination an oil lamp. As for The Cup of Coffee, while some might accuse Balthus of reducing the young woman to an element in the décor, I would say that what happens is precisely the reverse. The woman’s head is the still center of the painting, with the patterns of rugs, upholstery, tablecloth, and paneled wall creating a fireworks of tessellating arabesques that represent nothing less than the glorious play of this beautiful woman’s imagination.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The King of Cats, oil on canvas, 1935.

Those who arrive at the Metropolitan with a few vague impressions of Balthus—the dark good looks, the unconventional sexuality—may have a hard time seeing his paintings as anything but the products of some goth-vampire European art-world dandy. You have only to look at the outrageously elegant self-portrait with which the exhibition begins, painted in 1935 when Balthus was all of twenty-seven, to realize that from a very early age he knew how to cut a figure. That gift never left him. Rewald is by no means the first writer to respond to Balthus’s steel-plated ego by attempting to unmask an all-too-human figure behind the façade of the swaggering aesthete. Critics like to play a game of gotcha with Balthus, pointing out that it was sheer fantasy on his part to claim to be a Polish count and that, whatever he might have said to the contrary, it is an incontrovertible fact that his mother was Jewish. But the critics who find Balthus insufficiently sober or forthright, while certainly not wrong to call his bluff, have almost invariably misunderstood the nature of that bluff. Balthus’s entire worldview is rooted in Oscar Wilde’s belief that art is the supreme truth. Those who dedicate themselves to the religion of art, an untruth that reveals the truth, often feel they are not constrained by conventional definitions of fact and fiction. We are entitled to reject such beliefs, but we must understand that they were the air that Balthus breathed. He was born in the twilight of the fin de siècle. His father was an artist and an art historian, his mother was a painter, and as a very young man he was introduced to family friends who included Rilke, Gide, and Bonnard. (It was Rilke who suggested he be known only by his nickname; he was born Balthasar Klossowski.)t

Rewald’s biographical approach firmly situates Balthus in the Europe of the 1930s, his darkening interiors reflecting the mood of a continent on the brink of catastrophe. But because she is so out of sync with his mystical inclinations, she doesn’t know what to do with the information that she has uncovered. If Rewald seems bemused by Balthus’s talk about the timelessness of art, it is because she fails to understand that that timelessness can only be discovered in one’s own time. As much as he owed to Giotto, Duccio, Piero, Caravaggio, and Courbet—all frequently mentioned in relation to his work—it was the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that forever shaped Balthus’s worldview. The Symbolists, grappling with the dangers of modernity long before the arrival of World War I, saw art as the only possible salvation, the revelation that redeemed a catastrophic reality. Balthus’s art would be unimaginable without the precedents of Beardsley, Gauguin, Proust, Rilke, the artists in the circle around La Revue Blanche, and the incendiary fantasies of the Ballets Russes. In succeeding decades, without ever abandoning the enthusiasms of his youth, Balthus grappled with the shifting currents of European life, not as a journalist but as a magician. The Passage du Commerce Saint-André, his immense painting of a tiny street not far from the Boulevard St. Germain with its legendary cafés, is the definitive representation of Existential Paris. As for Japanese Figure with Black Mirror and Japanese Figure with Red Table, those profound responses to classical Japanese painting, their appearance in the late 1970s may in years to come be seen as reflecting Europe’s deepening awareness of the power of Asia.

Balthus reveals a great deal about his time and his place, but the revelations are not autobiographical so much as they are oracular: indelible visions that cannot possibly be captioned or encapsulated. Time becomes timeless. Narrative becomes myth. When Balthus represents himself in his canvases, it is often as a figure with his back to the viewer, the artist unknown and unknowable, determined to leave us alone with the mystery of a painting that is probably also a mystery to him. More than a decade has passed since his death, and this mystic is still leaving his admirers wondering what it all means. Who knows? Maybe he has spoken after all. Maybe the purpose of painting is no more and no less thanto make us wonder. Maybe it is as simple, and as difficult, as that. 

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).