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Inside the Metropolitan’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor galleries is the perviest art exhibition to be found anywhere in New York: “Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations.” The canvases on view there depict little girls as modern-day sex kittens in the guise of Old Master Venuses.
Before Ian McEwan’s poisonous literary plots, David Lynch’s Gothic film fictions, and Eric Fischl’s masturbatory portraits of suburban ennui, there was French-born Polish artist Balthus, né Balthasar Klossowski: the fox in the henhouse of the Western nude. Never a formal inventor, this retrograde painter ignored avant-garde ambitions to become modernism’s leading antimodernist, with a twist. The original upskirt artist, Balthus devoted a career to obsessively depicting female pubescent sexuality. Today, there is no question that Balthus was a pedophile. A precursor both of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert (with whom he was constantly compared after the publication of Lolita in 1955) and the real-life Polanski, Balthus physically transgressed a battery of ethical and legal codes. His paintings, on the other hand, committed no such crimes—instead, they continue to fascinate by pushing the limits of eroticism, as well as by symbolically ripping apart the psychosexual barriers skimpily separating right from wrong.
If Rubens is art’s most notorious chubby-chaser, then Balthus was painting’s most memorable crotch-shot man. Evidence of his hang-up defines the Met’s otherwise polite show, which concentrates chiefly on the early decades of the artist’s career—the 1930s to the 1950s—as well on a set of 40 ink drawings of cats he made when he was 11 years old. Curated by Sabine Rewald, a renowned Balthus scholar, and featuring 34 hard-to-borrow paintings, the Met’s exhibition expends a tremendous amount of energy on interpreting the Frenchman’s feline fancy (the French word chat, like its English counterpart, also refers to the vagina), but precious little on his crucial leitmotif: little girl lust. It’s as if the curator and her wall texts are too embarrassed to squarely face the artist’s lifelong psychological problem. In view of Balthus’s canonical popularity (the Met and the Pompidou held a storied retrospective for the artist in 1984), it’s patently absurd today to muffle his enduring theme. At this late juncture, one doesn’t have to embrace the tabloid impulses of NBC’s To Catch a Predator to want to call a freak a freak.
As McEwan once wrote with respect to his own uneasy lit: “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information.” A lesson one learns when attentively reading Atonement, that becomes doubly important when scanning a picture like Thérèse Dreaming (1938). In the painting of Balthus’s first underage model—the then-12-year-old girl is included in no less than seven of the canvases on view—she is shown reclining in a pose that is part absent-minded innocent and part outright exhibitionist. At her feet, a fat tabby cat laps at a bowl of milk (a sexual metaphor if there ever was one). Moving upward from the diagonal drawn by the animal’s hind legs, one finds the painter’s glory: a panty shot worthy of the most fevered cheerleader fantasy. Meanwhile, Thérèse’s surroundings—restrained in palette and composition—enact the perfect foil of a bourgeois portrait. Despite being painted inside the artist’s squalid Paris studio, Balthus stage-managed not only his sitter’s suggestiveness, but also the dark furniture and bric-a-brac that turns a sordid picture respectable in everything but spirit.
Balthus’s trick, in the words of Robert Hughes, was to tension the “co-existence between surface calm and predatory desire.” This strategy managed the opposition of debauched and traditional elements in each painting, and proved the artist’s go-to mode whenever his libido threatened to tip the scales. Take the twin canvases The Salon I (1941–1943) and The Salon II (1942). Pictures that similarly locate bare-legged girls in ravished and submissive poses—one is splayed on a couch, another kneels on the ground, reading—their stilted arrangements also suggest the scaffolding of an older classicism. Balthus cribbed heavily from two sources he loved, early Renaissance formality and Biedermier realism, the Mitteleuropean 19th-century antecedent to America’s mid-20th-century Norman Rockwell moment. The results were paintings with racy subjects treated with old-time fussiness. What he called the “timeless” nature of his art also turned out to be his beard.
If Balthus was a hawk who relished painting doves, his less sexualized pictures are like ducks on a mission: Dignified on the surface, they pedal away madly down below. That is certainly the mood animating a number of tamer but still disturbing pictures at the Met. Consider, in this light, Brother and Sister (1936) and Girl in Green and Red (1944). In the first, a pair of unsmiling children conducts a strange game of physical constraint. In the second, the artist’s then-32-year-old wife appears as a poker-faced, barely pubescent gamin—the knife plunged into the loaf of bread on the table in front of her a sharp reminder of the threat the painter evidently felt underage female sexuality held over him.
There are those who would tame Balthus by saying that the subject of his paintings is not, technically, childhood sexuality, but adult restraint. Yet the truth is that the vast majority of his work banishes such thoughtful abstractions. More immediate than obscure, Balthus’s pictures speak directly to the rotten part of the heart. Think of him as Walter White in Breaking Bad. It beats thinking of him as the brush-and-oil Michael Jackson.