A collection of works by acclaimed Franco-German auto didactic painter Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski) are present in the Metropolitan Museum’s Iris and Gerald Cantor exhibition hall from September 25, 2013 until January 12, 2014. The exhibition called Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations, reflects the work that the painter created between 1930-1950 while he lived in Switzerland and France. The paintings arrive from both private and public collections from across the globe.
Ms. Sabine Rewald ( Curator) used the word “provocations,” in the title to illustrate what some images conjure. Balthus wanted to provoke the viewer and he successfully does. At the same time, it may also entertain fantasies of the more depraved members of society. Balthus’s images portray partial nudity in pubescent females revealing thus the dark side of the viewer if s/he is entertained or a more noble side of the viewer if s/he is disturbed. Contemplating some of the images was at times a test for the viewer. The viewer almost becomes a voyeur in the life of these females, who merely pose in the manner in which according to the curator, ” Reflect the typical attitudes of boredom, apathy, and rebellion that is inherent in adolescents.” However, this painter’s unique style and exquisite use of color is the trap that the artist uses to draw the viewer into some of these indecent scenes. Sadly, the themes are so strong that at times the viewer, needs to stand back, turn away from the painting to reflect about the image. Seeing females in these degrading poses, suggests the painter’s Misogynist view on women during pre and post World War II. Unlike Ms. Rewald’s and Balthus’s view, it is this writer’s view that adolescence is not about apathy, and aimless rebellion. Perhaps, the middle class that ignored the struggles that many Europeans faced at the time, may be the case. However, adolescents around the world are as diverse as the people that live in it. Therefore agreeing with Balthus’s perception would be limiting the view for the sake of justifying his work.
As mentioned earlier, the artist taught himself, which could explain why he was not in vogue with his contemporary painters, nor too interested in the painting trends in the 1930’s. However, Balthus’s paintings transcend time, stirring up confusion, and revulsion. He used a technique that succeeds to grab the viewer’s attention. However, in the end, it falls short of showing movement. The bodies in his paintings are almost moving like robots with angular and mechanical gestures. This suggests even further that the painter saw people like objects rather than living beings. The style, although inhumane, works. Like Botero’s paintings, where the body sizes are used to make political statements, Balthus uses bodies as a commentary of the times in which he lived.
Overall, Balthus satisfies the inquisitive eye, and his choice of colors and idiosyncratic poses of his subject are novel. However, one cannot ignore the underlying messages that he communicates.
Some of his other paintings such as the King of Cats, Le Chat du Mediterranée, are a testament of the joviality of the painter. The child like, fun images full of color and spontaneity. The warmth and texture of the paintings come across instantly.
For Baltimore citizens who wish to visit New York City this fall, Balthus’s exhibition is worth the time at the Metropolitan Museum.