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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23 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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  3. This is fascinating, dear Alan….
    I didn´t know much about Balthus… But a painter obsessed about Wuthering Heights and Alice in Wonderland should interesenting… I (like you) perceibe something quite Voyeuristic in his painting and portraits… I wouldn´t dare to say it is a sexual fixation, though…. but you never know… Indeed not too many knew that Carroll might have felt attracted towards young women too… These kind of thing might shackle certain artists… I mean the subjects they chose when they are considered morally repudiable… I´d say it is quite a reductionism. We always need to see beyond these contingencies and personal tastes (even if they are socially forbidden!).
    I personally loved Balthus´s paintings here…. The cats add new layers too. I agree with you when you mention the voyeurism. The cat is always considered a spiritual, secret animal. A sacred one, since the Egyptian Times. I think that here cats seem to behave as witness, but important characters at the same time… Thank you so much dear Alan… Great post! 😀

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    1. Thank you Aquileana, I do like Balthus but I will admit to them making me feel uneasy as well. Balthus only had two subjects Cats and girls. His brother was the Sadean scholar Pierre Klossowski who wrote a number of pornographic novels as well as painting himself in drag (they were also at the exhibition)and his son was a friend of the Swinging Chelsea Set in the sixties and resident advisor to the Rolling Stones on alchemy. Balthus neighbour for a while was David Bowie, who wrote about him and Bono sang at his funeral. He loved high society, he once commented that he needed a chateau more than a hungry man needs bread. As for the Cats, well I am King of them now, but a cat can look at a king. I also love Alice in Wonderland.

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