Met’s Balthus ‘Cats and Girls’: Paintings and Provocations, Indeed!

Image of the painting of Balthus Girls cats eating a fish and lobster dinner by the ocean, now on display at the Met

This year's big fall show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is likely to make you a little uncomfortable. Not that there's anything explicit, or even terribly lewd, in these 35 "paintings and provocations" from the 20th-century French romanticist Balthus.

It's just that, throughout his long career–the paintings here are from 1935 to 1950, at which point Balthus still had another four decades of work to go–the artist was somewhat notorious for his obsession with young adolescent girls, which, although fully clothed (most of the time), were usually portrayed in vaguely alluring poses, lounging alone in lushly furnished rooms. Oh, and there are sometimes cats with the girls, too. 

Two people admiring the Balthus Girls painting of two cousins hugging each other on display at the Met

Not Your Typical Fall Season Crowd Pleaser

Which is all by way of saying that, despite the seeming family-friendly inclusion of "cats" in the exhibition's title, Balthus: Cats and Girls is more of a classic high-art show than a typical fall season crowd pleaser, one that's even a bit stuffy and fussy, but it should definitely please portrait fans and 20th- century-painting completists. I spent about 45 minutes with Balthus, his cats, and his girls the other day, and while this sort of aesthetic doesn't generally hit my sweet spot, there were definitely some very interesting things going on here, as well providing that always-welcome feeling of satisfaction you get from seeing and learning something new. 

Women looking at the Balthus Girls painting, entitled "Therese dreaming", of a girl sitting with her leg up looking over her shoulder with her eyes closed

Must See for 20th Century Portraits Fans

My favorite paintings in the Met's Balthus: Cats and Girls exhibition tended to be the earlier ones, in the first and second galleries. His self portrait, titled "King of Cats" (pictured below) and featuring a fat kitty with more expression than his owner (as well as a pair of alarmingly high-waisted trousers), is both charming and vaguely menacing. The simple portrait of two cousins (two above) shows a similar dynamism, though without the menace (nor the cat), and the technically stunning Therese Dreaming (above, and prominently displayed at the exhibition's entrance), is simultaneously creepy and innocent. Also interesting here at the Met: 40 never-before-exhibited drawings that Balthus made when he was only 11 years old, many of which contain cats. Also interesting, but for different reasons: the bizarrely cheesy, almost aggressively amateurish The Cat of La Méditerranée (picture at top), which looks like something a hobbyist/waiter at a cheap seafood restaurant would throw together for the wall in the dining room.  

More Information: Balthus Cats and Girls

Balthus: Cats and Girls will be at the Met through January 12, 2014. For more information about everything please the Metropolitan Museum website!

A self portrait painting of the Balthus Girls with his cat

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