Balthus’s fascination with the life around him had nothing to do with documenting everyday experiences and everything to do with uncovering the hidden meanings of those experiences. Such meanings, so far as Balthus was concerned, were hermetic and occult, to be decoded like the images in the Tarot deck or the constellations in the night sky. Braque, a painter whom Balthus admired, urged artists to approach their canvases in the same spirit as a medium approaches her tea leaves. We must take Balthus altogether seriously when, late in life, he spoke of “the elucidation of mysteries” and a search for “the secret connections among all things.” He believed that the painters he admired most—Giotto, Masaccio, Poussin—demanded of themselves an almost supernatural precision. “How can one paint,” Balthus wondered, “except with this deliberate and mystical progress?”
Balthus embraced a succession of mystical guises, a variety of masks, veils, and mirrors that he believed enabled him to reveal aspects of a deeper truth. Going through “Balthus: Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations,” the exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a sensitive visitor will have glimpses of Balthus the mystical magician. These begin with the somber realist visions of Thérèse and Thérèse Dreaming, from 1938, and conclude with the anti-naturalistic opulence—by turns coruscated, burnished, and muted—of The Cup of Coffee and The Moth, from 1959 through 1960. “Balthus: Cats and Girls” is cause for celebration, the first museum exhibition in New York devoted to his work since the retrospective at the Metropolitan in 1984. It is also an extraordinarily frustrating event. Sabine Rewald, the curator at the Metropolitan who organized the show, is a rationalist, and therefore incapable of grasping the genius of this artist who is anything but a rationalist—who was one of the greatest dreamers of the twentieth century.