The self-assured 27-year-old painter towers over us. His hand rests on his cocked hip while an affectionate, fat tiger cat nuzzles his leg.
Leaning next to the French artist is an inscribed stone tablet that declares him “The King of Cats.”
That he is. He’s also the king of girls -- specifically, that mysterious realm known as adolescence.
The 1935 self-portrait welcomes you at the entrance to “Balthus: Cats and Girls -- Paintings and Provocations,” which opened yesterday at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (Balthus) always wanted to remain a man of mystery. For his 1968 Tate retrospective, he sent this telegram: “No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards. B.”
The show, curated by Sabine Rewald, is less titillating than its title suggests. Held in Paris in 1934, Balthus’s first exhibition created a scandal.
One of its most daring masterpieces -- sadly not on view at the Met -- is “The Guitar Lesson,” depicting a prepubescent girl, nude from the waist down, splayed across a woman’s lap. Experienced fingers play with pleasure on the young body. Conflating sexual assault and Pieta, the work was originally exhibited behind a curtain.
The most erotically charged picture here is the Met’s beautifully suggestive “Therese Dreaming,” in which an introspective girl in a skirt sits with her knee up and legs apart, revealing white panties, while a cat sips milk from a saucer.
A close second is the Smithsonian’s “The Golden Days.” A nymphet with a mirror reclines on a chaise, exposing herself, while a kneeling man stokes a roaring fire. He is burning. She’s like a princess drifting downstream. The scene hums and purrs with romantic and sexual overtones.
Balthus said the pictures are spiritual, not erotic, and that “The Guitar Lesson” was his only flirtation with pornography. They strike me as traditional Venuses -- deep explorations of the sacred and profane.
There are a few other masterpieces among the 34 paintings here -- many of which are transitional pictures and feel more like strays than purebreds.
“The Victim,” a nude odalisque floating on a cloud-like sheet, is ephemeral, disturbing, dreamy. The sublime meditation “Girl in Green and Red” imbues overt phallic symbolism with religious devotion.
The flattened, exotic and decorative interior surrounding a young woman in “The Cup of Coffee” is textured like tinted sand and merges still life, fresco and Persian carpet.
And “Girl at a Window,” a modern annunciation, floods the last gallery with crisp, springtime light.
But this exhibition, the first major Balthus show mounted in the U.S. in 30 years, is tame and half-hearted. It’s a misrepresentation of the artist’s oeuvre and of his chosen subject. It’s also a missed opportunity.
When Balthus died in 2001, he was the greatest living painter, producing strange and mysterious pictures that rival those of Piero, Courbet and Titian.
This exhibit’s curatorial coup is its complete set of 40 ink drawings the 11-year-old Balthus created for “Mitsou,” a book about a boy and a cat. Balthus’s earliest professional work, it includes an introduction by Rilke.
But “Mitsou” doesn’t make up for what’s blatantly absent. Abruptly ending in 1959, this show ignores the artist’s miraculous and enigmatic late paintings of the themes he explored until his last day at the easel.
“Balthus: Cats and Girls” is far less than the great artist deserves.
For some indication of what Balthus was doing later, Gagosian Gallery has mounted “Balthus: The Last Studies.” The show inaugurates Gagosian’s new ground-floor gallery on Madison Ave. and announces its representation of the Balthus estate.
Beginning about 1990, Balthus -- his eyesight failing -- drew with a Polaroid camera. He shot his young models, landscapes and paintings in process.
Almost 2,000 photographs exist. About 160, mostly of his last model, Anna, are here, along with a large “Unfinished painting” (2001).
Balthus’s intimate, magical Polaroids are fascinating records of his compositional thinking.
“Balthus: Cats and Girls -- Paintings and Provocations,” opened Sept. 25 and runs through Jan. 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.
“Balthus: The Last Studies” runs through Dec. 21 at Gagosian Gallery, 976 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-744-2313; http://www.newyorkgagosian.com.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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