Photo: Ink drawing from the Mitsou series by Balthus
But what attitudes do cats adopt? Cats are just that: cats. And their world is utterly, through and through, a cat’s world. You think they look at us? Has anyone ever truly known whether or not they deign to register for one instant on the sunken surface of their retina our trifling forms?
-R.M Rilke from the introduction of Mitsou; 40 drawings by Balthus.
Love is not a marketplace and there is no assurance of fair exchange. Sometimes the things we love the most are unable to reciprocate by their very nature; sometimes they aren’t even human as with a painting, a pet, or an idea. They sponge our love and lead us around by the nose on a thrilling chase without any promise.
The current exhibition at the Met, Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations, gives a brief rekindling of the French artists’ controversial impact. With selected works spanning the artists’ sprawling career, the show traces Balthus’s suggestive imagery of smoldering adolescence as it was accompanied, narrated, and amplified by cats. While the grand paintings wow the senses with piquant geometry and classical presence, the real showstopper for me was a vitrine encasing ink drawings made by the artist at age eleven. The forty images depict the narrative of a cat, Mitsou, which young Balthus adopted into the family and then lost. The drawings were given as a gift to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (a father figure to Balthus) who, seeing their genius, published them with his own forward. The original images were thought lost, though unlike Mitsou, they were tracked down by the curator and Balthus scholar, Sabine Rewald.
The series is drawn with casual certainty like a stark woodcut without half-tones. The world that Balthus organizes in the little squares is economically whimsical and observationally astute. They capture both the personal nature of this experience while delighting in the visual rigor. In a way they feel more like an adult’s effort made for children rather than a child’s effort for adults. They possess the same timeless quality that Balthus would later strive for in his masterful synthesis of art historical influence.
The simple story of a boy finding a cat, developing a strong attachment to it and losing it seems simple enough, but there is a particular pathos that Balthus teased out over forty diverse cells that make them far more complex. We see For instance, when boy and cat are alone together Mitsou appears larger and is described with sensitivity, but when adults are present she is reduced to incidental marks. This effect gives a distinct impression of private intimacy, perhaps similar to how in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the stuffed animal is only depicted as alive within the boy’s isolated imagination. That intimacy is the scandalous hallmark of Balthus’s later renderings of adolescent girls— an intimacy which gave the room (or lack there of) to convey the models’ inner world.
When the series begins we see Balthus finding Mitsou on a park bench beneath an ominous barred window, which disappear as soon as she is in his arms but reappear at the end when he finds she is missing. The bars read as the perceived prison that children can feel restricting their movements in a world organized by and for adults. Mitsou with her cavalier feline entitlement gave the boy a permission to explore his world more freely. Seven of the drawings depict scenes of ingress and egress through doorways, led by the cat. In the final drawings Balthus walks through the wiles of the town with a candle, dwarfed by the oppressive night-forms, looking in vain for Mitsou. The last cell finds Balthus back in his room alone in tears.
Part of us is always longing to return to carefree joys of childhood, is looking for that lost part of ourselves that we gave away so easily in effervescent innocent love. The fact that these images were made by an eleven year old is significant for more than just defining Balthus as a wunderkind—they illustrate very effectively the psychological condition of, what we now term, tweens. At that age real fears replace fantasy, the sense of self begins to bloom as do the initial feelings of non-parental infatuation. Whether consciously or not, Balthus creates the perfect allegory for this psychological development. Moreover he sets up the rest of his career as an allegory for trying retrieve Mitsou and hence regain lost innocence.
Stalking that lost innocence certainly lead him through contentious territory, so much so that audiences are often blinded by the scandal. Balthus’s paintings themselves are like cats that stroll through with nonchalance, snuggling, clawing, upturning trivets and then exiting without regrets. Their conduct in the human world is taboo, showing sexualized adolescents, but in the cat world they do as they please with rebellious beauty.