Balthus at Metropolitan Museum of Art

I was overjoyed to be able to finally make it to Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Balthus exhibition “Cats and Girls – Paintings and Provocations”, the title of which is pretty much self-explanatory.  

Before I comment on the exhibition itself, I will briefly mention what was most memorable to me about the entire visit. At all the information points and ticket offices were staffed with smiling, extremely comely ladies of at least 60 . All answered guest’s questions politely; all were competent and looked happy they could be there. It gave me pleasure simply to look at them. I wish our grandmothers could work like that. Well, soon I will be wishing for a job like that for myself…  

Now, back to the exhibit. Balthus, or Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, was a Paris-born painter with roots in Polish nobility. He painted from 1930s onwards at the then-Mecca of artistic world, Paris. His admirers and subsequent friends were people belonging to the artistic boheme, which then permanently entered art history books – people like André Breton, Pablo Picasso, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, René Char, Albert Camus, Joan Miró and André Derain.  

The rest of the art world saw him as a controversial figure , partially because he rejected the rules by which this very world operated and always situated himself on its very fringe. He didn’t like to discuss his art and was irritated by others’ attempts to describe it. According to him, paintings were there to be looked on, not to provoke intellectual description. As he himself said: “In order to know a painter, all you need to do is to look at his work”.  

The controversies surrounding him were mostly connected to his chosen subject matter and the way he decided to present it. The subjects of his paintings were ordinary little girls, depicted in a quite erotic fashion. Balthus himself rejected all accusations of creating child pornography and openly stated that he was not interested in sexuality, but in the problematic nature of adolescence for a young girl who starts to grow up. There’s no doubt, though, that the bodies of prepubescent girls were objects of fascination for the painter – the 16-year-old Balthus allegedly fell in love with the 12-year-old Antoinette de Watteville, his future wife and mother of his two sons. That allegedly first love permanently defined his future erotic interests.  

I have to admit I was interested in Balthus’ paintings for a long time now and I’m happy I finally managed to see them live. I wasn’t disappointed. I regretted that the exhibition wasn’t bigger, sicne I would have loved to see more of the artist’s work. Do I see it as controversial? No. First of all, I think Balthus was a great painter. Of course, I also think all those little girls didn’t end up on the paintings by accident – the painter’s preferences found their way onto the canvasses. At least that’s the way I see it. All this doesn’t diminish the great talent of the man, as well as doesn’t alter the way his work should be perceived.