the king of cats by balthus
Self-portrait: “The King of Cats” (1935)

Where the paintings of the French artist Balthus (1908-2001) are concerned, many may be familiar with his provocative studies of adolescent girls in languorous poses, all quite striking — and controversial — for their suggestive sense of nascent eroticism. Not surprising that they comprise many of the pieces in a new exhibition, Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations, which recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and runs through early next year.

But it’s the furry dimension, personified by a little creature named “Mitsou,” which I find most captivating. Forty ink drawings, on exhibit in their entirety for the first time, were Balthus’ early footsteps into art, created at the age of 11. The depictions were moving enough that the famed German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke penned the preface for a compilation of the sketches, published in 1921. (It should be noted that Rilke was also involved in an affair with the young Balthus’ mother at the time.)balthus mitsou

The inception of these miniature vignettes, two of which are shown at right, began with the discovery of a stray cat to whom the boy became deeply attached, only to be mired in desolation, below right, when the animal suddenly disappears (as cats are wont to do).

A lifelong obsession and sense of loss far outlived the short time the artist shared with his childhood companion. As an example, hours can be spent deciphering the symbolism in 1949’s The Mediterranean Cat, shown at bottom. Is there a subtext of residual anger at Mitsou’s abandonment behind the sinister undertones of the painting? One can speculate. Freud meets feline, so to speak. (Adding to the complexity of the psychological tableau is yet another Balthus nymphet, waving from the canoe, at left.)balthus mitsou

In the preface to the Mitsou drawings, Rilke wrote to the unhappy child: “Is she still alive? She lives within you, and the insouciant kitten’s frolics that once diverted you now compel you; you fulfilled your obligations through your painstaking melancholy.”

A melancholy that not only helped shape the crown of the self-proclaimed “King of Cats,” but indelibly contributed to the contours of 20th-Century art.

the mediterranean cat by balthus
“The Mediterranean Cat” (1949)