About Us

Contact Us





First Chapterss


Youth Springs Eternal - BALTHUS
Robert Cooper decodes the late artist Balthus

Over the next few weeks I shall be looking at and discussing a selection of my favourite paintings. We have all seen and heard of paintings that are lauded by critics and art historians in countless books, galleries and now television programs, of which the latter seem to have been increasing inexorably over the last few years. While I might understand, in most cases, why this praise is due, it certainly does not mean that I have particularly strong feelings about them. During my younger years as an artist a lot of painting left me cold and I put this feeling down to not really understanding these great works; however understanding art is about feeling most of all, it is not an equation with an answer at the end. Since then I have progressed and my understanding of art and literature have also, but my feelings and opinions have not radically changed. Of all the painting I have seen over the years, there are but a few I have passionately liked, or even affected me to some degree; and from these I shall be making my selection.

'Therese Revant' Balthus Collection Mexico

‘Jeune fille au chat’, (Young girl with cat) painted in 1938 by Balthus is the title of this painting, and a veritable wolf in sheep's clothing it turns out to be. We see a girl reclining in a chair, with her hands behind her head and one foot raised onto the chair. Immediately I realise that in doing so she is revealing her underwear to us. I think it must be coincidence for I know that children assume all manner of poses, that as an adult would be deemed inappropriate or just provocative. Children have not developed the sense of embarrassment and shame of their bodies that we suffer as adults. They are not aware of their sexuality and the socially acceptable body language of mature society, and so they have nothing to hide, they sit comfortably for surely that is the most natural thing to do.

The eye is drawn up the body to the face whose gaze is not directly at us but off to the right and yet is aware of our presence, our wandering eyes. That face whose age is at once uncertain; a girl yes, but how old? It’s an unusual face, beautiful with well formed features, something akin to a woman's, not an adolescent. With her hands comfortably placed behind her head and a look of self-confidence and awareness that belies her apparent age, I am at once in doubt of the innocence of her pose and feel that some provocation is at work on me. Or is this just what I want to think? If she is a child then she is unattainable; sacred; and untouchable, which is necessary because it keeps that very desire in check; for it is the erotic that provides the pleasure and its cessation is inevitable upon its realisation. It is the very nature of the erotic to be seen; one specific set of circumstances that present themselves for a fleeting moment, and then disappear leaving us wondering what it was that produced that emotion within us. But here the moment is captured and so this duplicity continues back and forth as my gaze flicks between her legs and her face, never resolved. I am held between taboo and the desire, a moment that can never be satisfied; or even recognised in her eyes?

Balthus plays on this wonderfully; the soft warm light flows in from the left and trickles over her legs revealing her thighs and under her skirt. It defines their shape beautifully and they become the focus of the painting. Just below lies the cat which we see time and time again in his paintings, this particular cat is large and friendly looking. The cat, the pussy-cat, just below her revealed underwear, is a symbolism we cannot fail to connect in our minds. Maybe not immediately apparent, and perhaps working on a subconscious level, the connection however cannot be reversed once it has been made. Balthus is teasing the viewer, daring them to make the connection, forcing them into a fluster. It might just happen to be there, a companion of the girls; but no, we forget this is a painting not a chance happening and Balthus has placed everything their by his will alone. A symbolism he might well deny, but an intended one there can be no doubt. This is the crux of my enjoyment of this and other Balthus paintings, they are loaded will suggestions that teeter on the edge of uncertainty, and one discovers one desire to see what one wants to be present, whether it maybe or not.

Balthus has said very little of his work from day one disliking reporters; television; and photographs of himself; and choosing to remain an enigma. This has led journalists and art critics to have free reign on his art and what they believe he is, if anything, trying to say. Balthus has always maintained that his paintings should be seen, not read about or read into. It is only natural however to read into work after seeing it and it seems strange to me that such a simplistic understatement should be made by an artist whose work offers itself, and desires to be read into so greatly. I believe he was protecting himself, due to the difficult nature of the subject matter, from most peoples misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the erotic as something pornographic, which it is not in psychological terms, nor was it for Balthus.

At the very end of his life he gave a rare interview and whilst discussing one of the last paintings he produced he talked of an early influence “...I was remembering when I first discovered Poussin before I was a painter, the eroticism of Poussin. The landscape was also full of eroticism. There is eroticism in my painting, but it is eroticism transformed into something else, something sacred if you want. If you see my idea.” (1)Notes on Balthus and Painting

Born in Paris on 29th February 1908 Balthasar Klossowski (nicknamed Balthus) was a self taught artist who had no formal training and so learnt by trial and error the techniques of his craft. He strove to represent what he called ‘reality’ in his work and his vision often lead him to become frustrated with his ability. He has often compared the task of his learning to paint to having to write in an unknown language without knowing it's vocabulary or grammar. Compared with ‘Jeune fille au chat’ his early works are rather crude and lack the composed confidence evident here. In fact his style evolved throughout his life and his later works are quite different, being heavily worked with with an almost textured paint in pale colours of a similar tonal value. The middle period from which this piece was completed provides the richest fruit and a style that is definitely his own and instantly recognisable as Balthus.

What follows are a few notes on painting and how I see it within the art scene at the current time. It is now generally accepted that painting no longer holds the reins in the art world, and has moved over to let other media bath in the limelight. Some critics have even said painting is dead, or at least posed the question. While I feel that it’s golden era is long over and the best has already been, new painting still generates interest and stimulation in the viewer and the artist/maker, and the wealth of historical painting will continue to provide pleasure and debate for a long time yet. There seems to be an almost intrinsic and innate need to paint for a lot of artists, the seemingly primary creative process it engenders, like drawing and writing, is still being tapped now and will be for some time yet I believe. Commercially it is definitely still the bread and butter of art dealers everywhere, only the most modern galleries trading in the new currency of contemporary art. Proving that people regard it as the medium of art most preferred for collection and display in their own spaces.
(1) ‘Homage to Balthus’, Tate, 2001.

© Robert Cooper 2001
Robert is an artist and writer living and working in London - 'If you would like to respond to this piece or and other matter please email

More Reviews

< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article