It’s difficult to write about an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art without somehow, first, acknowledging the museum itself, and the work of art it is.
I arrived at the museum with little trouble, a first in many attempts to navigate the city on my own without my trusted car. I, a recent transplant to the city from Connecticut, have had to relearn to depend on public transportation after realizing, the hard way, that driving in New York is a loser’s bet.
Still, it is not like I am not familiar with public transportation. Quite the opposite, I have very recently gained the freedom to drive myself, anywhere and everywhere, and it feels like I am being asked to drop a shiny new toy much too soon. And in the subway I always feel like I can’t breathe.
I was on the ground so to speak, and my sense of direction, to date, still needs help. I tell myself that it is not a bad sense of direction. Instead, I just need to remind myself that it always my secondinstinct that gets it right. The fact that my choices are usually limited to two (left or right, up or down) is notwithstanding. I get there eventually.
I take the train and arrive a few blocks away from the museum, and though my task is clear, I am distracted by the tea store across the street and take a detour. I’m just going to ask for directions, I tell myself. And get a cup of tea in the meantime. The people in the store are of course, incredibly helpful. And while I wait for my tea to steep forever (my original instructions were: “Just let it sit there all day and I’ll come back later. He limited that to fifteen minutes), I ask for directions to the museum.
Right next to the park, they tell me. You can’t miss it. And after grabbing my tea, and the best cheese Danish I’ve had to date from the bakery next door, I head on my way.
There are parts of New York that are historic. In fact, I have found it difficult to find a place in New York that isn’t drenched in history or has been made famous by a movie or song. As I walk down to Madison Avenue I can only think of the movie Splash and I find myself quoting lines in my head when I see the street sign. I can’t stop but stare at the houses and buildings, historic and works of architectural art, and I know I look like the dumbfounded tourist. Even the gates are beautiful. And as I reach the park, the first thing I ask myself is if I could find the statue of Alice in Wonderland there.
And then there’s the museum. It is being renovated but it’s still beautiful, and the steps are littered with people listening to a group of men singing Du wop. I buy a hot dog and listen, and the moment is perfect.
I walk inside to a flurry of activity. There are people everywhere excited about the art. The energy bubbles, and I, invigorated head straight to find Balthus.
And I am distracted every step of the way. Claude Monet. Pablo Picasso. Geogia O’keefe. I find myself staring inside an empty sarcophagus and thanking every ounce of art and history education I’ve ever had for letting me appreciate these works of art. I make my way to the entrance of the Balthus exhibit twice and am lured away by another painting I had once seen in a textbook.
And then I step into the exhibit.
The disclaimer is the first red flag.
The fact that the name of the exhibit is Girls and Cats feels like a wink to the modern dependence our society has on the internet, and how it would not exist without either of these things. What I didn’t expect, however, was a large SPOILER ALERT at the very entrance of the exhibit, warning that “some” may find these images disturbing.
And yes, disturbing they were. The images themselves seemed harmless enough. Children lying prone in bored play, serious and looking away, but at closer inspection these paintings have a way of making the viewer feel uneasy.
The first realization is the easiest: just like the exhibit says, these are paintings of girls, prepubescent and angular, small and for the most part unsmiling. And then you notice the parts where the painter paid the most attention. The cats themselves, save for one self-portrait, are painted in hurried strokes, quick and fleeting, blurred in motion on dried oil. But the girls, the girls are accented and defined, and if brush strokes are anything to go by, Balthus had a thing for legs.
I find myself trying to look away from the legs, from the folds of a dress, the perfectly detailed lace hem on one, trying desperately to find another point of focus but I come back almost instinctively, to the curve of their perfectly lighted legs every single time.
If this disturbs you and makes you feel uncomfortable, well, that’s the point. Even in the spacious rooms of the museum exhibit felt tight and airless. People shifted uncomfortably, tugged at their collars and gasped for breath.
I heard a woman ask, “What was wrong with this guy?” A couple of guys behind me whispered the word creepy, and everyone seemed like they would rather be somewhere else. It was hard to swallow, even with the kind disclaimer, that these paintings were about the complexities of childhood and puberty when it felt like the artist seemed to be trying to turn the audience into passive witnesses to his pedophiliatic desires.
Balthus had two sons, and yet his muses were young girls. The farmers daughter, and later, Therese, Balthus’s niece who became his muse at the age of 16.
I stare at the paintings of Therese and wonder what she is thinking. She is half naked in a few of the paintings. In one she is topless. In another, she’s just out of the shower, and her smooth glowing skin is front and center. In one of the paintings, the one that struck me the most, the plaque describes Therese’s averted gaze as one that “let’s” the viewer gaze upon her body, as if looking away is an invitation to look elsewhere. And I wonder.
I wonder about Therese and her life now. The plaque say she is still alive. I wonder what her story is, how she’s felt about being the silent muse of a famous painter, a passive object of fame at such a young age. I wonder about these girls and what they have to say, and I’m dying to hear the stories, in a place far, far away from Balthus and his violating gaze.