“If it’s creepy-dirty, that’s Balthus,” a friend said to me once.
Balthus didn’t like bios, thought people didn’t need to know anything about him, that his work should speak for itself. It should. It does. So I wasted no time learning about him before I went to see his show at the Met.
He also believed you shouldn’t read about paintings, and obviously, that’s where we disagree.
So there are several rooms: the Freud room, with dark pictures of girls (mostly one girl, actually, who it seemed wasn’t harmed in the process), lighter pictures with furniture, a wacky room with a painting of a rainbow and fish jumping and a cat smiling in a mean way, and a room of paintings with softer colors with ladies who don’t look like either demons or fetishes. Then there is one other room.
I wasn’t sure how to feel in this room: jealous that Rilke never happened upon me and decided I was a genius, or empathy for Balthus losing his cat. This other room has a set of 40 ink drawings that Balthus, age eight, created to express his mourning for his lost cat Mitsou.
My cat is also lost. Well, temporarily lost to me by being 1,500 miles away.
Little boy Balthus meets the cat, takes it home, through the town, and you see all the ways your cat is with you: playing, watching a mouse and pouncing on a mouse, perhaps most importantly, making a puddle of fur on your bed while you are in it, observing the decorating of your Christmas tree, though we do not get to see Mitsou sneaking over to climb the tree, or hungrily watching the lights get untangled.
Little boy Balthus got sick, and at first Mitsou is on his bed as a cat should be. Then there are two drawings of looking for Mitsou. Inside, under the bed. Outside, streetlamps. No Mitsou. No matter where you look.
Yes, grown-up Balthus’ compositions are magnificent with triangles, and he knows how to use an orange like a red and a red in a way that could teach us all how to dress and wear lipstick.
Back to Rilke: he happened to have an affair with Balthus’ mother, and in this way became acquainted with the boy and got these drawings published. You’d like to hate Balthus now.
The dirty pictures are more about trying to pull energy out in a way that is unexpected and almost scary, contrasting Balthus’ deft technique with ruder forces. I liked everything more than I thought I would. I don’t think the girl rising business would ever resonate much with me. My maturing happened so, so slowly, I can’t imagine this moment Balthus focuses on.
He could teach us all how to wear white socks, too.
Some images from Mitsou book here: