‘Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

'Nude with Cat,' 1949. (©Balthus, courtesy the Met)

‘Nude with Cat,’ 1949. (©Balthus, courtesy the Met)

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola died in 2001 at age 92. This exhibition doesn’t make the case that the painter, known as Balthus, was a major artist, or any other untenable claim. Instead, “Cats and Girls,” curated by Sabine Rewald, is a slight, biographical show that presents a peculiar niche painter and personality.

The exhibition is subtitled “Paintings and Provocations” explicitly to warn away those who might mistake it for a show appropriate for children. Children feature in the work, of course. Balthus’s models include 11-year-old Thérèse Blanchard, 12-year-old Georgette Cozlin, 14-year-old Odile Bugnon, 16-year-old Frédérique Tison and 16-year-old Laurence Bataille. Where you feel girlhood ends and adulthood begins may be tested by Balthus’s prurient interest in his young models showing a bit of buttocks, breast or the greater portion of a thigh. These early paintings, made in the 1930s and ’40s, are set in the comfort of an upper-middle-class Parisian apartment. The young figures doze on horsehair sofas, sprawl on bench seats and concentrate on book pages and playing cards. Flames leap in marble fireplaces, and, at every elbow and against every edge, cats rub and preen.

Of course, the French have long loved their cat paintings. “Is that really a kitty?” one wag famously said of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), suggesting that the black cat at the end of the prostitute’s bed was a visual pun. Even Balthus’s first cat art, in the Matisse-like drawings he made at age 11 of the discovery and disappearance of the stray Mitsou (on view here for the first time publicly and by far his best work)—might be read in relation to the loss of his mother to her lover Rainer Maria Rilke, the suitor who, while courting Balthus’s mother, published the child’s India-ink cat drawings in book form and started the young artist’s career. The Oedipal loss of this first pussy, then, is sublimated in art, a pun made for Lacanian edification. (In fact, it is none other than Jacques Lacan’s own 16-year-old stepdaughter, Laurence Bataille, biological daughter of Georges Bataille, fondling kitties in several painting here.)

Balthus is a kitschy painter, and the show is unafraid to put the kitschiest of his work on view. The wild, six-foot-wide The Cat of La Méditerranée, 1949, shows an enormous, smiling cat sitting at a table about to enjoy a fish served with a baguette and a fine rosé. A rainbow has apparently carried the fish from ocean to plate; at its base, a shirtless girl waves from a rowboat. The piece was made to hang in a seafood restaurant Balthus frequented, and it screams “e-Bay find” not “great art.” Still, it is thrilling to see.

'Mitsou,' 1919. (©Balthus, courtesy the Met)

‘Mitsou,’ 1919. (©Balthus, courtesy the Met)

Balthus’s great talent as a painter is to make a body appear simultaneously slight and solid, a trick he learned from Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca’s columnar virgins and angels. Balthus accomplishes this at first with pints of greenish underpainting and later through built-up, plaster-thick canvas surfaces. Besides this, the frisson of his work hangs largely on its subject matter: lithe limbs in knee socks, white panties, sated cats.

The final room of the show presents paintings of Balthus’s model and niece Frédérique Tison, who went to live with her uncle in a dilapidated provincial castle when she was just 15. Balthus’s painting style changes to a clotted and fresco-like surface. Tison’s body is often depicted from the side; some poses, like Nude in Front of a Mantel (1955), explicitly mimic Georges Seurat’s nudes. The art historical aspirations of these final paintings are clear. Still, the wall text remains resolutely focused on Balthus’s personal life, telling us that Tison left her uncle when he moved to Rome to direct the Académie de France at the Villa Medici.

Balthus is a tricky character, and that’s how his fans like him. For all of his aristocratic pretensions and artistic limitations, the devoted see a special case. In the department of socially well-placed but somewhat obscure and eccentric European painters of the 1930s, I personally prefer Giorgio Morandi to Balthus, and Théodore Géricault made what is by far my favorite painting of a girl and a cat (Portrait of Louise Vernet as a Child, 1819). But, as the success of “Cats and Girls” will no doubt indicate, there’s no accounting for taste. And that is as it should be. Museums that vet exhibitions in tedious bureaucratic processes would not have come up with a show this quirky— and the obscure and undervalued is often just what those who love art love to see. It is to the Met’s credit that “Cats and Girls” is up at all. (Through Jan. 12, 2014)