On a recent visit to Rome I caught the Balthus retrospective at the Scuderie del Quirinale. Although frequently included in books on Surrealism, Balthus was never affiliated with the Surrealists. However as an art world insider he was friends with several prominent figures including the sculptor Giacometti and the writers Artaud and Bataille. More importantly he shared with Surrealism a preoccupation with the oneiric state and the same literary influences, particularly Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.
The exhibition includes the 14 remarkable ink illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte’s classic was much admired by Bataille and Bunuel, who filmed his own idiosyncratic version set in Colonial Mexico as well as quoting the novel at length in his excellent autobiography My Last Sigh. It is not hard to see why the novels would appeal to the Surrealists with its tempestuous romanticism and its insistence on the primacy of childhood and nature against civilisation and maturity. And, of course, it is the culmination and pinnacle of the Gothic novel which Breton placed above all other literature in the Manifestos. Balthus perfectly captures the intense and sombre atmosphere of the novel which he clearly identified closely with as his Heathcliff is also a self-portrait.
The influence of Alice is even more marked. The exhibition includes several witty anthropomorphic drawings and absurdist caricatures that show the influence of both Tenniel’s illustrations and the Alice books. However it is the unsettling, decidedly ambiguous paintings of young girls often sleeping and frequently observed by slyly inscrutable cats that spanned his career that show the depth of the fixation with Alice. In 1933 Balthus painted Alice Dans le miroir and a quarter of a century later he returned to Alice to paint Golden Afternoon.
Balthus paintings have aroused considerable controversy for their subject matter and its not hard to see why. A previous exhibition was titled Cats and Girls and that neatly sums up his twin obsessions. However saccharine sounding there is nothing cutesy about Balthus eerily frozen and silent domestic universe. The knowing cats, that together with the very young girls that populate his paintings appear to be stand ins for the artist; after all he was the self proclaimed King of Cats, therefore placing himself squarely within the frame of his paintings, adding a further disturbing voyeuristic subtext.