Balthus’s Androgynous Dreams

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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.

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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.

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“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?

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“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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