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Balthus, “Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) (all images © Balthus and courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When we talk about Balthus what we talk about are perversities: a grown man painting erotically charged portraits of Lolita-like young girls with their skirts flapped up like flowers. We see this eroticism further in the connection between the young girls and the pussycats, the age of the girls in contrast to the age of the painter, and the look of pleasure on the young girls’ faces. Voyeurs, we condemn as we crane our necks nearer to see.

I’m going to push these tropes and interpretations aside. Also, I am going to push away all the work from the other rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations aside from the room of Thérèses. My reason for doing this is: the other three rooms of paintings are nowhere near as strong: the colors, diluted, the sharpness of the lines, lost. It is only with the Thérèse paintings that Balthus comes to life.

Black ink on paper drawing from Mitsou (1919)

In 1936 Balthus began his series of the then eleven-year-old Thérèse Blanchard, his neighbor, in Paris. Eleven is the tail end of childhood, the middle world between childhood and adulthood. Also, it was at the age of eleven that Balthus made the forty ink drawings of his cat Mitsou when Mitsou went missing. A child prodigy, his work was made into a book titled Mitsou in 1921, with a preface by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Taken in this light, we might view his portraits of Thérèse quite differently. Rather than seeing Balthus as a man viewing a young girl as an object, as “other,” we might, instead, see his paintings of Thérèse as a series of a kind of self portrait. What I am suggesting is that Balthus saw himself in the young Thérèse.

In the painting “Thérèse on a Bench Seat,” Thérèse is dressed handsomely in a forest green plaid knee-length skirt, white knee socks, black ballet flats, an orange sweater over a white Peter Pan collar and a cinched red belt around her waist. She is acrobatic, an androgynous gymnast, her body along the bench, her torso, twisted, as she pulls what appears to be a clear thread from her skirt. She is unraveling. Her other hand is pressed flat against the floor. She is balancing herself. Her face appears asleep: eyes shut, face relaxed, a celestial light shimmering upon her face. She is asleep while balancing between two worlds. The painting is both beautiful and terribly sad. She is leaving the kingdom of childhood, the only world she has known.

“Thérèse on a Bench Seat” (1939)

In “Thérèse Dreaming,” we have, again, the same rich forest green against the surprise of crimson. In the background, as in the other Thérèse paintings, Balthus has painted variations of brown: washed out, worn out, transitory. In this painting, as in “Thérèse on a Bench Seat,” she appears to be asleep. But what is she dreaming? One thinks of Nan Goldin’s photographs of young junkies nodding off. But what is Thérèse lost to? Where has she vanished?

“Thérèse” (1938)

Thérèse has vanished where Balthus has entered. Remember, he was eleven when he made the ink drawings for his missing cat, Mitsou. He was a child prodigy — neither boy nor man. And like all prodigies, he slid into adulthood without leaving his child self, behind. He grew into a boy-man. In all the paintings, Thérèse is androgynous — a pretty eunuch. She is, especially in “Thérèse,” confident, self-assured. In this painting, she sits in a green chair, wearing what appears to be a boy or a man’s red blazer (she is he). Her arm leans along the chair’s armrest, the other, against her exposed knee. This Thérèse is not a girl. But neither is she a boy. She is not man or woman, child or adult. Again, she inhabits that strange middle world. She inhabits the space Goldin’s junkies vanished to. This middle world, this nowhere land. Balthus painted the Thérèse paintings so he could enter this mystical in between space, the amber-like world of no-place.

This explains, too, the passion and precision evident in the Thérèse paintings but curiously missing from the rest of the work in the show. The sharpness, the oversaturated colors —these are both lacking (aside from the work in the room of Thérèses). There is a passion in the Thérèse paintings, an electricity, which is missing in the other works. It seems likely this energy, this glow inside the Thérèse paintings, is the direct result of Balthus’s doubling into the work, projecting, or dreaming, himself into the portraits — falling asleep, as it were —inside the ghost of the girl, or boy-child, he dreamed.

Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 12.

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Cynthia Cruz

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection...

7 replies on “Balthus’s Androgynous Dreams”

  1. “What I am suggesting is that Balthus saw himself in the young Thérèse.”

    Isn’t that exactly what everyone else is suggesting too?

  2. I find this premise is fairly problematic as it stands. Firstly, the fact that we are given direct lines of sight to splayed legs and consistently thigh-high skirts makes it very difficult not to see Thérèse as something of an adolescent odalisque, doing away with the blatant sexuality inherent to the way in which Bathus is clearly looking at her simply is not possible – it is inherent to the picture.

    Additionally, It’s tremendously difficult I think, to make this argument claim without looking at his other work, for instance – did he hybridize his masculine identity with his later models too? Why just Thérèse? Is he then psychosexualizing himself, in fact, by painting these? This would make painting them, over and over, something of an obsessively narcissistic act, an idea that I think, after careful analysis, the work eschews.

    It’s also tremendously difficult to make the case that the intense psychoactive/euphoric depressant working within the minds of Goldin’s heroin addicts is comparable here. Why bring this up? Is the claim being made that Thérèse seemingly is under the influence of something? Is it being said that the “other world” she is in makes it easier to paint her as sexual object?

    In short, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to say that the content of this article is anything other than a projection onto the work, unsubstantiated by anything beyond merely looking at the pictures and thinking about them. One could certainly muse about the way that the artist put semblances of himself into his work here, but to say that Thérèse is a psychosexual mirror, a ‘pretty eunich,’ a repository for depictions of androgyny etc. is problematic without some substantial augmentation to the argument, and validation from some other external, or primary source.

    1. I think the ‘Mitsou’ drawing, and reference to Balthus’ experience as a child prodigy are the primary source, or trigger for the interpretation the author presents. The author may have gone out on a limb to ask us to set aside the erotic element or tone. But, if you are able to do that, then it might be easier to see the subject as being about a self-possessed, androgynous, pensive, suspended-in-between state that the artist reflected upon and felt connected to. I see a suggestion of adolescent complicity in Balthus’ paintings. I am always wondering if the adults aren’t just off-stage, probably cooking something cabbagey, and having an eaux-de-vie.

  3. Sadly, Balthus’ art will be problematic forever. The inability of the viewer to square the
    seductive masterful painting achievement with the implied repulsive debauchery
    of his subject matter is the crux of the problem. I sympathize with a desire to solve this
    dilemma. To make it all right with
    perspective is to champion his achievement because few painters ever painted so
    well with so much skill. However, psychoanalyzing
    the artist and substituting the image of Therese with a profile of the artist
    is an approach that ignores
    the visual facts too much. It appears
    that Balthus wants to seduce us with his skills and he wants us to enjoy the
    debauchery. And because we don’t
    naturally want to debase ourselves we can’t enjoy the art in totality. Therefore viewing his paintings forces us to
    compromise and becomes an exercise in trying to understand Balthus in the
    particularities of the man rather than ourselves or some greater understanding
    of the human condition.

  4. This entire discourse about the work of Balthus and the intense scruitiny of his motives, alleged perversion, etc. entirely misses the point of the work and is sadly symptomatic of the lack of appreciation and deep understanding i.e. feeling for Balthus’ incredible body of work.
    Try to refrain from talking so much and place yourself in these rooms with these examples of the highest forms of art. It’s rare opportunity for you, so instead of enjoying hearing your superficial evaluations, take advantage of the privilege of LOOKING….the paintings will soon be gone.

  5. I think you’re just grasping at a reason that it’s ok to enjoy a possibly pedophiliac group of images because it doesn’t jibe with your world view. So you’re going to make it ok by saying they are self portraits of an androgynous person instead. That way, while looking at, and enjoying, these images, you convinced yourself to shut up about the repulsion and guilt you actually felt for seeing this guys nasty little perversions for what they were. Lustful.

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