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Balthus, Nude with a cat


The history of painting since Manet (assuming that Manet’s Olympia is, as Malraux declared, the beginning of modern art) appears as a series of technical revolutions, competitively iconoclastic, tending to extremism, each claiming, at least by inference, to cancel the one it has followed. The Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, the Nabis, the Fauves, etc., stand at the beginning of what appears to have become a never-ending progression. Romantic heroism was, of course, an important ingredient in the motives of the earlier insurgents, who ran the risk of failing both in the work and its acceptance. The significant change that took place after Courbet and Manet was that these revolutions were no longer conducted by individuals but by groups, generally with a more or less coherent programme and a leadership of some kind. By the time Duchamp exhibited the bottle rack in 1913, it began to be clear that extremism was here to stay, and that the Movement, at any given moment, was not so much a leap in the dark as a refuge. Young artists may have well-developed egos, but they feel the need of some kind of support when first venturing into the arena, and this of course must come mainly from their contemporaries. These constitute a family of sorts, together with all the variations of personality and ambivalences the term implies. 

Naturally, at any given time different and rival ‘families’ can exist side by side. During the ’twenties and ’thirties many opposing movements flourished in one degree or another, but of these Surrealism seems to have been the most vigorous, the most highly organised, and by far the most vocal. 

Of the many associated with this group at the time, two major figures, Alberto Giacometti (1901–66) and Balthus (b. 1908) emerged. Giacometti was a formal member for several years, and later changed course completely, while Balthus, who never became a member, was a painter whose work was approved by the Surrealist hierarchy. Though these two were very different in personality, they were close friends for many years. Both were, in a sense, protégés of the elder Derain1James Lord, Giacometti, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983, p. 168. who, from having been a leading figure in the Fauves movement, had become a proponent of independence. 

Balthus, whose real name is Michel Balthasar Klossowski, was born in Paris in 1908, of an emigré Polish family of minor aristocracy driven out by political turmoil, first to East Prussia, and then to Paris. The parents were both cultured and artistic; after many vicissitudes relating to the Great War, they separated in 1917. In Switzerland Rainer Maria Rilke, who had befriended Balthus’s mother, recognised the son’s talent and encouraged the boy to become an artist. Balthus returned to Paris in 1924 where he studied painting, not by attending an art school but by copying old Masters in the Louvre. 

Subsequently Balthus came to take his family background so seriously that he awarded himself the title of Count, and acquired a chateau. This, he declared, he needed ‘more than a workman needs a loaf of bread’.2ibid. Generally, artists regard the class structure as irrelevant, and the identifying of oneself with aristocracy as poor taste, but evidently for Balthus it was a necessity for maintaining his romantic fantasy of continuity with the past. Yet, as has often been observed, his true artistic ancestor is Courbet, a peasant, a democrat, and a revolutionary This paradox is only one of many existing in the work, all of which taken together make him one of the most intriguing figures in twentieth-century painting. 

By the early 1930s Balthus was seen in Paris as a painter of outstanding gifts, being given his first show at the Galerie Pierre in 1934 at the age of twenty-six. In this exhibition it is now apparent that the major characteristics of his work had already crystallised. Later in that decade, he also attained recognition in New York through an exhibition in the Pierre Matisse Gallery. 

Among the paintings shown in his first exhibition was The window, a clear pointer to a major theme of the subsequent work. It shows a fifteen-year-old girl precariously perched on a window sill, arm raised as though to ward off a blow, and bosom revealed by a torn blouse. Both the setting and the figure suggest, not a studio, but a melodrama enacted on a stage. In another a young semi-nude girl is seen in a room which is completely bare except for a kitchen chair. In a review of the exhibition Antonin Artaud, a friend of Balthus, wrote of these pictures: 

Balthus paints, primarily, light and form. By the light of a wall, a polished floor, a chair, or an epidermis he invites us to enter into the mystery of a human body. That body has a sex, and that sex makes itself clear to us, with all the asperities that go with it. The nude I have in mind has something harsh about it, something tough, something unyielding, and – there is no gainsaying the fact – something cruel. It is an invitation to lovemaking, but one that does not dissimulate the dangers involved.3Antonin Artaud, Exposition Balthus à Galerie Pierre, La Nouvelle Revue Française.

Apparently sales were small; people being always resistant to having something harsh and tough hanging on the wall. His reputation grew, however, primarily among fellow artists (always the field where reputations begin). Picasso bought a major painting of children (fully clothed) of 1937, which he subsequently presented to the Louvre. By 1940 Balthus had begun to receive some international recognition, with a show in 1938 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York and a major article in the prestigious British magazine, The Studio in 1940. 

As well as painting children and adolescent female nudes, during the thirties, Balthus painted portraits (evidently his financial mainstay), landscapes, street-scenes, still-lifes, in fact all the usual subjects for the traditional painter. In addition, which was not so usual, he designed numerous sets and costumes for plays and operas. His The window 1933, described above, could easily be a scene from a play, and indeed a certain theatricality has marked quite a large proportion of his work. 

Something of this feeling pervades the painting Nude with a cat (formerly Nude with a basin) 1949 (signed and dated (indistinctly) centre left ‘Balthus 1949’, oil on canvas, 65.0 x 81.0 cm, Felton Bequest, 1952). The picture was painted in Balthus’s Paris studio in the Rue de Rohan, but what is represented is not a studio but an empty room in which have been placed a few props, two rudimentary cupboards without doors, a chair and a basin, a jug, a cat, and two figures. It is a stage, a play – characteristic of a large number of the Balthus interiors. This is where the resemblance ends, for this scene can have no before and no after. Every element in the tableau is locked in a classical stasis, and if one element moves, everything dissolves. 

The paradox is that the nude figure is shown not as immobile but in motion, and, to a lesser extent, the same is true of the figure at the window, standing on tip-toe and extending an arm. The basis of the composition is the division of the rectangle into two triangles, bottom left and top right. Basing the structure of the design on a diagonal means that the artist chooses to begin with a major discord (a device which Balthus frequently employed). Having begun with a figure which is in motion, and in so unstable a position that it must in the next second fall to the floor, the back of the chair already having collapsed, every other element within the rectangle is required to play a direct role in the arrest of this collapse. In this respect Nude with a cat can be seen as a triumph of order over chaos. 

The major high tone is the light on the nude figure. This is balanced by a counter-movement of low tones leading from bottom left to top right, that is, from the shadow under the cupboard on the left, through the seat of the chair, the shadow under the central cupboard to the second girl’s skirt and hair. A supplementary low tone closes the right side, obliquely running from the girl’s skirt, the shadow under the window to the basin, together with its cast shadow. The supplementary linear structure is mainly a combination of horizontals and verticals, varied only by the slight obliquity of the left-hand cupboard which leads into the centre, at the same time as providing a support for the highlight on the torso. What appears to be a triangular shadow cast by the model on this cupboard is an arbitrary device to separate the cupboard from the upper part of the figure while echoing the angles of the limbs. 

As for the chair, one of the early studies (Collection: Museum of Modern Art, New York) shows this to have been high-backed, the cat climbing over its top above, while the model’s head and arm hang over the arm of the chair, at right angles to the figure. In the painting, the cloth placed over the arm of the chair forms a supporting bulwark for the figure, though this arm seems to have detached itself from the chair altogether. 

In general, a golden glow seems to permeate the room, playing over subdued browns, yellows and greys. The attitude of the model and of the cat suggest a drowsy sensuality. The head flung back and the raised arm was a pose commonly used by the Greeks for the expression of sensual ecstasy, and repeated ever since, particularly in the Baroque period. 

The painting, one of a series of four, was based on a set of sketches, some pen and ink, some pencil, made in the studio, and initially showed a dwarf at the window. In the four small paintings which are variations on the theme, a second girl was substituted for the dwarf, who reappeared in a large canvas The room, not completed until 1954. In The room, the atmosphere is gloomy, and the dwarf who opens the curtains with an abrupt gesture is a sinister figure – altogether a theatrical tableau. 

The four small pictures can be grouped under the title of one of them, The week with four Thursdays, referring to the fact that French schoolchildren at that time had a holiday on Thursdays. The girl, in other words, is a schoolgirl. The paradox is that while it is difficult for adolescent girls not to be pretty, this one could scarcely be thought as pretty but rather as an awkward lump. She is definitely not Boucher’s Miss Ο’Murphy, or even Manet’s Olympia. She is an ordinary little girl who has been translated into a set of angles which, although expressive of the awakening of sensuality, are yet not free of a degree of sadism on the part of the artist. The model’s head, neck, torso and limbs are defined by lines which are not the soft lines of youth so much as the harsh forms of geometry. 

The beginning of sexual awakening in girls may coincide with the moment of greatest beauty, but nympholepsy is rare among artists, indeed one can think of no others who have continued in this vein throughout a long career. Opinions vary about the quality of the later work. The large canvas, The painter and his model 1981, shows the artist in the same position at the window as the clothed girl in Nude with a cat, while the model, a pretty girl, fully clothed, is kneeling on the floor reading a book propped on a chair. Both figures are elegant, and the general atmosphere is of chic, tinged with ennui. 

There is no other major painter of the twentieth century about whom so little has been published, either in the form of statements, interviews or monographs. In fact the first monograph, by Jean Leymarie,4Jean Leymarie, Balthus, Macmillan, 1979. did not appear until the artist was over seventy, while the others, by his son5Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Balthus, Harper & Row, 1983. and by Giovanni Carrandente,6Giovanni Carrandente, Balthus: Drawings and Watercolours, Thames & Hudson, 1983. were not published until some years later. As exegesis they are all quite useless, for they amount to nothing more than hymns of praise. The Leymarie volume is actually a sumptuous coffee-table book with an introduction. Speaking of light in the sort of paintings here discussed, he says: 

A metaphor for the Godhead, light is the Godhead of the painter, the medium of vision and at the same time the object of vision, in as much as forms exist or anyhow appear only when fused with its essence, quickened by its radiance.7op. cit., pages unnumbered.

Carrandente’s tone, in his introduction to drawing is not much different: 

In his drawings, Balthus attains the highest peaks of the great French tradition. Courbet and Cézanne, Seurat and the ‘French’ Picasso in his rose period are among the few names in modern art which can be placed in the same class.8op. cit., p. 7. 

Perhaps most revealing of all is his remark, 

Balthus considers the eroticism in his work to be Sacred, and for this reason he likes it to be neither publicised nor commented on.9ibid.

It appears that writers on the artist write what they are told. 

Balthus is singular among twentieth-century painters in his preoccupations, though one cannot help thinking that Nabokov would have understood him in more ways than one, although he might have wondered how anyone could bear the company of Lolita over a fifty-year span. 

With all this, it must be said that Nude with a cat is one of the finest pieces in the National Gallery of Victoria’s twentieth-century European collection. 

John Brack 

Notes

1          James Lord, Giacometti, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983, p. 168. 

2          ibid. 

3          Antonin Artaud, Exposition Balthus à Galerie Pierre, La Nouvelle Revue Française. 

4          Jean Leymarie, Balthus, Macmillan, 1979. 

5          Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, Balthus, Harper & Row, 1983. 

6          Giovanni Carrandente, Balthus: Drawings and Watercolours, Thames & Hudson, 1983. 

7          op. cit., pages unnumbered. 

8          op. cit., p. 7. 

9          ibid.