Balthus and Cats

by Gail Leggio

This beautiful little book is a portrait of the artist as magus, and Alain Vircondelet is supremely comfort-able in the role of willing acolyte. Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski, 1908–2001) was one of the best figurative painters of the twentieth century, a modernist in his formal inventiveness and his exploration of ambiguity and anxiety, an astute interpreter of masters old (Piero della Francesca) and new (Gustave Courbet), and a canny self-promoter. From his final home, the Grand Chalet, a former inn in the Swiss Alps, he cultivated a persona swathed in mystery. Vircondelet was part of his inner circle, his biographer. Balthus dictated his thoughts to Vircondelet, who published the results as Vanishing Splendors: A Memoir/Balthus (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2002). Balthus and Cats focuses on a particular facet of Balthus’s life and art, his identification with the feline. A reader looking for critical distance on this enigmatic artist should turn to other sources, but Vircondelet’s intimacy and insights are fascinating, and ailurophiles will surrender to the book’s charms.

Balthus’s affinity for cats is a leit motif, proclaimed in his self-portrait, The King of Cats (1935). He is an elegantly gaunt dandy—his sharp cheekbones give him a resemblance to the mad theater genius Antonin Artaud, a close friend in Balthus’s Paris period—with a large cat rubbing against him. In his peroration on the painting, Vircondelet uses a ripe prose style reminiscent of fin-de-siècle writers:

Balthus chose his camp: that of the cat, venerated in antiquity, which harbors within an obscure, sometimes fearsome mythology that meant it was either persecuted or elevated into a god…. The cat thus became the go-between, the lookout and the guardian, knowing as it does the byways that thread through to the Great Secret.

This enjoyably overwrought passage does not capture the full experience of living with cats, which includes sheer fun and relaxed intimacy, but Vircondelet recognizes the uncanniness of felines and saw firsthand how important individual animals were in Balthus’s paintings and in his daily life.

Young girls fascinated Balthus as much as cats did, and he frequently brought them together in the same compositions. In The Game of Patience (1954), the girl leans over a card table, examining a spread of cards. A single candle on the table and the intense look on her shadowed face suggest cartomancy, an occult reading in progress. Beneath the table, a cat, playing with a white ball, stretches out a paw, in a similar gesture. The simple shapes and echoing gestures have an austerity that suggests the geometry—sacred and occult—of the early Renaissance. The erotic element in Balthus’s work comes to the fore in Thérèse Dreaming (1938). The young girl on the bench raises her leg, exposing her underwear, but the stillness of the scene, her closed eyes—as if she were a medium in a trance—and the non-chalance of the big white cat, drinking milk at her feet, give the image a curious solemnity that precludes prurience. Vircondelet suggests it looks like a seventeenth-century painting, and the palette of brown, red and white has a Spanish feel, along with the superb table-top still life in the corner. Vircondelet’s comments are personal and impressionistic throughout, rather than scholarly in a formal way, but they have charm.

Sometimes, too, the cat represents Balthus, a subtle surrogate in a private space. In Nude with Cat (1948–50), the naked model—more mature this time—leans back, reaching over her head to pet a stretching, playful cat. The cat has the same mischievous smile as the feline-headed protagonist in The Cat of La Méditerraneé (1949), a self-portrait of Balthus as a dressed cat setting down to a café meal under a rainbow of fish. Painted as a shop sign for a Paris restaurant, the painting has the naive charm of great folk art. The cat sits like a king, knife and fork at the ready, a fish on his plate, a glass of wine at his side, a lobster waiting as the next course and a girl waving from a boat, under a rainbow.

The book includes, in addition to a generous selection of Balthus’s paintings, some of his wife’s, Setsuko’s, gouaches, simple images of household cats in heavily patterned interiors, and photographs of Balthus, his last studio and some resident felines. The photographs are particularly touching, capturing the quiet simplicity of Rossinière—the inn was neither architecturally grand nor luxuriously furnished—and the frail artist’s irresistible elegance. The book also features the forty india-ink drawings for what Vircondelet calls The Tale of Mitsou, a picture narrative Balthus created at the age of eleven. The book was published in 1921, with a foreword by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The suite of drawings is a major highlight of the exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first public display for an extraordinary example of precocious genius.

Vircondelet discusses a number of works not in the Met exhibition, including the faux primitive Cat with Mirror I (casein and tempera on canvas, 1977–80) and Cat with Mirror II (oil, 1986–89). The composition is the same: a girl seated on a divan covered with printed fabrics looks at herself in a hand mirror, while an inquisitive cat rears up over the back of a chair, looking at her while she looks at herself. In the 1977–80 work, which has the texture of an old fresco, the girl in naked under her blue robe. Vircondelet calls her a “female Japanese warrior,” aptly if fancifully. But he saves his most incantatory language for the feline presence: “These pictures seem to have been here from all eternity, as if suspended in an inviolable, ritual pose that the cat, hypnotized in its turn, has occasioned or surprised.” Vircondelet misses the humor in this curious exchange. Balthus’s cat, with his raised paw, could be from a child’s storybook. But these pictures are also serious explorations of the nature of gazing, which lies at the heart of image-making, which is, in archaic societies, itself a magical procedure. Cat with Mirror graces the cover of this quirky little book, which anyone enamored of Balthus—as the author so clearly is—will want to add to the shelf, along with Sabine Rewald’s splendid work of scholarship. Vircondelet’s little volume, a combination of personal reminiscence and that currentlly underrated genre, art appreciation, would make a lovely introduction to one of the twentieth century’s most intriguing artists.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1