Balthus’s lifelong fascination with the dark side of childhood resulted in his most iconic works: canvases depicting girls on the brink of puberty, hovering between innocence and knowledge. In these pictures, the artist mingled intuition into his young sitters’ psyches with overt erotic desire and forbidding austerity.
Balthus’s portraits of a local young Parisienne named Thérèse Blanchard, and his interior scenes featuring Thérèse’s various successors, are among the most powerful depictions of childhood and adolescence in the Western canon. Far from being mere pretty girls in frilly dresses, Balthus’s subjects are self-possessed and self-absorbed individuals, with a palpable but mysterious interior life. Also present in many of the images are cryptic cats — often smiling, sometimes leering, and likely as not standing in for Balthus himself.
Balthus: Cats and Girls focuses on the early decades of his career, from the mid-1930s to the 1950s. Sabine Rewald draws on her extensive (and firsthand) knowledge of the artist, as well as on interviews with the models themselves, to explore the origins and permutations of his obsession with depicting adolescents. She addresses the crucial influence of such key figures as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, his mother’s lover, who acted for a time as Balthus’s surrogate father. And she includes the previously unknown voices of the girls, whose recollections provide a unique perspective to some of the most recognizable and potent images of the twentieth century.