Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations explores the origins and permutations of the French artist’s focus on felines and the dark side of childhood. Balthus’s lifelong fascination with adolescence resulted in his most iconic works: girls on the threshold of puberty, hovering between innocence and knowledge. In these pictures, Balthus mingles intuition into his young sitters’ psyches with an erotic undercurrent and forbidding austerity, making them some of the most powerful depictions of childhood and adolescence committed to canvas. Often included in these scenes are enigmatic cats, possible stand-ins for the artist himself. The exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is organized chronologically and focuses on the early decades of the artist’s career, from the mid-1930s to the 1950s, and features 34 paintings, as well as 40 ink drawings for the book Mitsou that were created in 1919, when Balthus was 11 years old—thought to be lost, these drawings have never before been on public display.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908-2001) and his elder brother, Pierre (1905-2001), were born in Paris into an artistic and intellectual milieu. Their father, Erich Klossowski (1875–1946), was an art historian and painter whose family had escaped from Poland in 1830 during an unsuccessful revolt against Russia and who obtained German citizenship in East Prussia. The boys’ mother, Elisabeth Dorothea Klossowska (1886–1969), was also a painter and was known as Baladine.
As an eight-year-old, in 1916, Balthus had posed with his pet cat for a watercolor by his mother. Three years later he worked his adventures with a stray cat he called Mitsou into 40 pen-and-ink drawings. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a family friend—who not long after became Baladine’s lover—was so enchanted by these drawings that he arranged for them to be published in 1921 in the book Mitsou, for which he provided a preface in French. At Erich Klossowski’s request, the cover of the book gave the young artist’s name as “Baltusz,” as he then spelled his nickname—which was a shortened version of his given name, Balthasar. At Rilke’s suggestion, Balthus signed his work from then on with this childhood nickname, at some point changing the spelling to “Balthus,” as we know it today. Rilke played an important role in Balthus’s life, as a crucial creative influence and also as a surrogate father following Baladine and Erich’s separation.
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