Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations

Show most people an image of a cat in a hat, hugging another animal, doing something very human-like and they will chuckle, remark how funny that is and then, click, click, click, share a link or image with friends, followers and random people they have gathered in their quasi-fictional digital social groups. When did cats get to be so popular?
Thinking is for intellectuals who spend their time trying to find meaning; we all just want an easy life, material-rich and consumptive. Tedium is a spark for escapism and so it is websites like BuzzFeed have grown to be the perfect digital drug to take us to Wonderland.
Writing in the Guardian, Jason Farago, the editor of The Bugle, observes how cat mania seems to have spilled out into the world of fine art, with, for example, the New York art gallery White Columns showcasing cat-inspired work, Minneapolis’ Walker Art Gallery hosting an internet cat festival and The Brooklyn Art Museum has a long-term show entitled Divine Felines.
The world has gone cat crazy, but perhaps it has always been that way – the information age allows for us to better document sentiments after all. One individual who had a fascination with felines was the late twentieth century French artist Balthus, a captivating, talented and decidedly eccentric human being.
This love of cats is explored in a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, along with his preoccupation with what he considered to be the darker psyche of adolescence.
His obsession with felines began at an early age, when, at the age of ten, he befriended a stray cat. It would soon enough disappear, but he had already become attached to it. The young Balthus was devastated, heartbroken even, and he responded as only an artist can, through channelling his pathos into his work.
He may have been only 11, but the Mitsou ink drawings of 1919 are rather special, indicative not just of an emerging talent, but of a brilliant mind in the now of then. The German poet Rainer Maria Wilker, a family friend, thought them brilliant and arranged for them to be published. For Balthus then, a cat had changed his life.
And so they became an inevitable motif, for something lost perhaps, which, when tied in with his unsettling, troubling and eroticised portraits of young people, may suggest his unease with how his youth was snatched away from him earlier than he would have liked.
He is a difficult artist to like, something that the title of the show alludes to – provocations. Many of his paintings incite not so much hatred, but real, deep disquiet. He always played down the suggestive nature of the images and there is no known documentation of impropriety, but regardless, they do make us feel uncomfortable and rather out of our depth.
We need to feel this way at times. In Aldous Huxley’s seminal dystopian novel Brave New World, Mustapha Mond explains to John the Savage how the World State has sacrificed high art because this is the fortunate/unfortunate (delete depending on point of view) price you have to pay for being happy.
In some ways, there are echoes of this anesthetised way of life today, which brings us nicely back to cats. By all means, when a little bored with the monotony of existence, lose yourself to gifs of cats doing all sorts of crazy things, but give yourself a break from this and have some time to ponder beyond the purely superficial. Cats can make you think.
Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art runs until January 12th 2014.
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