‘Drifting Off in a World of Their Own’

Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 25, 2013–January 12, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition by Sabine Rewald
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 166 pp., $45.00
Balthus/Metropolitan Museum of Art
Balthus: Thérèse Dreaming, 1938

The subtitle of the splendid exhibition of works by Balthus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is really a misnomer. For there is no evidence that Balthus painted adolescent girls, let alone cats, as provocations. Which is not to say that he never set out to shock. His painting The Guitar Lesson shows a music teacher, modeled after Balthus’s own mother, maliciously pulling the hair and pawing the crotch of a half-naked girl in white knee socks sprawled helplessly across her lap. Robert Hughes called this picture of molestation “one of the few masterpieces among erotic paintings by Western artists in the last fifty years.”

The Guitar Lesson, not on view in the Met show, was once stored at the Museum of Modern Art, then sold to the filmmaker Mike Nichols, and now belongs to the Niarchos family—the old shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos had it in his palatial bedroom.

When The Guitar Lesson was shown for the first time in 1934, at a gallery in Paris, it caused a stir. But the shock experienced by viewers then may have had less to do with sadomasochism than with Balthus’s mocking intent. As Sabine Rewald, the great Balthus scholar and curator of the current show, observed in the catalog of her earlier Balthus exhibition at the Met in 1984, The Guitar Lesson parodies a common theme in European art of music lessons turning into scenes of seduction. But Balthus did something more shocking: the painting echoed in its composition a famous French picture of the corpse of Christ held by the Virgin: Pietà de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon (circa 1455). The parody was blasphemous.

Blasphemy is less likely to upset people now than an erotic depiction of an adolescent. For we have sex on our minds more than religion. Even Max Ernst’s far more sacrilegious image of the Virgin spanking her son (The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus, 1926) has lost much of its power to upset.

Unlike The Guitar Lesson, however, none of the pictures of young girls in the latest show at the Met is overtly sadistic. So why must they be called provocations? The answer seems to be clear: it anticipates sensitivities that were far less common when the pictures were made. The sexuality of children, and especially their sexual allure for adults, is today’s most fiercely guarded taboo.

To be sure, the marvelous paintings by Balthus of the twelve-year-old Thérèse, dreamily gazing at the viewer with her white panties showing (Thérèse with Cat, 1937), or the painting reproduced in the catalog of the nude Laurence Bataille (daughter of Georges Bataille) stretched back, cat-like, in a chair, while a sinister-looking person draws the curtains to throw light on her naked form (The Room, 1952–1954), are unsettling, but not because of anything pornographic. Far more blatantly erotic pictures were done by Egon Schiele…

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