H.M The King of Cats

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Balthus-The King of Cats 1935
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 ac8e459339d1b81d7a4cd57cdaf9cf5e[1]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.

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Balthus-Girl Asleep
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21 thoughts on “H.M The King of Cats

  1. It appears that “Alice in Wonderland” is a sort of Bible for the Surrealists, fascinating, although I could be wrong. Well, someone had to be The King of Cats, why not Balthus? Some of his other paintings are not nearly as tame. Lovely post as always Mr. Cake. Wishing you well. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. I know that some of his paintings aren’t nearly as tame. He was a very fashionable person, Bono sang at his funereal and David Bowie was a neighbour. He once said that he needs a Chateau more than a hungry man needs bread. His brother was the Sadean scholar Pierre Klossowski and his son was a writer on alchemy who hung out with the 1960’s Chelsea occult circle that featured Donald Cammell and mick Jagger. As for Alice in Wonderland, indeed the bible with the Chants De Maldoror as the Book of Revelations. it has been noted that I resemble the King of Cats (but I am in fact the present day King anyway).

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      1. My anarchist sensibilities are repelled by the Chateau comment but I can also sympathize, I really need a castle in the Black Forest with a moat some wolfhounds loads of servants and my mistresses

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  2. I didn’t know that about Wuthering Heights, what a pity. One of my least favorite classics, and that’s being kind. Alice, though is another thing altogether. But Balthus, lots of young girls with raised knees… Plenty of interesting info, Sir Cake. I feel like this is a mini art appreciation class. 🙂

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    1. Thank you, it is a shame you don’t like Wuthering Heights as it probably one of my favourites. As for Alice I think you can realise just how high a esteem I hold those books. Balthus…well, lots of raised eyebrows. In my younger days I certainly resembled physically the King Of Cats (a position I now hold).

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      1. Oh, I feel like I was beaten to death with WH in honors English and I got sick of it, you know? Perhaps my maturity would give me a different perspective. I know and love Alice, too. You are indeed acquiring an extensive list of monikers, King of Cats! I’m merely Mayor of cats in my world.

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      2. I like monikers…i can understand the horror of books read at school (i never got past school, no college for me), however it is an astounding achievement, the intensity, which is purely imaginary, obviously appealed to the surrealists.

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