Bathus: Cats and Girls at the Metropolitan Museum of Art open until January 12, 2014.
Curator Sabine Rewald presents thirty-five of the modernist Polish-French artist’s works from the 1930s-1950s. The most arresting works in this exhibition are comprised of Balthus’ numerous portraits of his sitter-muse, the adolescent Thérèse. As invoked by the additional subtitle, paintings and provocations, Balthus confronts us with deftly nuanced portrayals of girls characterized by both somber ethereality and charged sensuality. Capturing the ambiguities of adolescence, the blurred line between the purity of childhood and the burgeoning sexuality of adulthood, Balthus evokes an unsettling tension.
In Thérèse from 1938 the subject exudes both self-aware toughness and insolence with her evasive gaze and crossed leg. Her pose and clothing capture the self-awareness of an adult but her youth betrays vulnerability. The muted greens and tawny tones of the interior are mirrored in the treatment of her face. This palette further conveys an unsettling moroseness present in her expression. The uncertainty of adolescence is also evinced by her bare legs, revealing a burgeoning sensuality.
In Thérèse Dreaming also from 1938, the subject’s expression is defiant and strained as she turns away from the viewer. Her body language is that of a rebellious youth but the positioning of her arms conjures earlier depictions of female nudes such as Goya’s The Nude. There are symbolist overtones, as well, in the presence of a cat lapping milk, representative of eroticism, and the use of red for her skirt and shoes. The overt sensuality of her opened legs both coincides with and contradicts her diverted gaze-she is both rebelliously revealing her white panties and defiantly refusing to meet the gaze of the viewer. This perfectly captures complexities of adolescence, the movement from a lack of self-awareness to self-absorption.
Balthus’ works, although rooted in realism, are often preternatural and unsettling. The meticulous detailing, amplified by the unnaturally taut angles of arms and legs, evokes an Egyptian quality. The luminous white of skin and dream-like expressions of the subjects harken to the symbolists. Jed Perl touches upon this further in his review in The New Republic. The presence of the cats in these paintings suggest both domesticity and wildness, and more so the secret interior of the mind versus the exterior world. These girls’ expressions are often of revelry and daydreams and we, as viewers, are barred from this interior world of the psyche.
We cannot ignore the explicit sexuality in many of these images, and how that resonates within contemporary culture. The presence of sexuality in children is considered taboo and leads to charges of exploitation and pedophilia. Balthus’ images do not ignore the fact that adolescent girls possess sexual awareness, as our culture often does, nor does he condemn it. He captures the moodiness and rebellion of youth and most significantly, the hazy world between childhood and adulthood that is fraught with confusion and the search for identity.
Angela Sundstrom received her MFA in poetry from The New School in NYC. She freelances book reviews for Time Out New York and her poetry has been featured on The Best American Poetry blog. She has a mini-dachshund named Sir Winston who is a lovely misanthrope.