Fall 2015

Electric Caresses

Rilke, Balthus, and Mitsou

Dominic Pettman

Balthus, The Living Room, 1942.

In 1920, as Europe reeled from the Great War, as well as from all the questions about human nature and progress it provoked, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited a close friend, Elisabeth Klossowska, near Lake Geneva. This woman had a twelve-year-old son, who would grow up to be known simply as Balthus, a painter notorious for his voyeuristic depictions of tender-aged girls, often shown in secret, somber interactions with cats. The critical reflex, when confronted with such imagery, was—and indeed still is—to acknowledge the totemic function of this animal within the frame, which symbolically mirrors the girls themselves (coded as feline, or “kittenish”), while also evoking in plain sight a metaphoric allusion to the taboo part of the subject’s body the painter presumably most desired. But this view changes when we learn about a trauma Balthus suffered a year before Rilke’s visit.

Having taken in a stray cat, the young boy named his new companion Mitsou, and loved his enigmatic adoptee with the unthinking intensity of a sensitive child. But just as quickly as she had come into the boy’s life, the cat disappeared, leaving only a single year of memories. To cope with the devastating pain of abandonment, the precocious Balthus made forty ink drawings of fond moments they had spent together. Mitsou taken to the park. Mitsou keeping the young boy company as he reads a book. Mitsou in Balthus’s arms as the family waits to board a ferry. Mitsou being scolded after the first dress rehearsal for disappearance. And then the last sequence of pictures: the young boy, frantic and disconsolate as he searches for his friend, and finally in tears, distraught as he realizes that Mitsou is gone forever.

When Rilke visited the house, one year after this sad event, he was shown the drawings by the budding artist. The poet was so impressed with the story these told that he arranged for the drawings to be published, even writing a short preface in French for the book. Clearly more than sentimental juvenilia—the celebrated German publisher Kurt Wolff, for instance, called them “astounding and almost frightening”—these pictures shed a different light on Balthus’s later work, which many find uncomfortably pedophilic. (It is no coincidence that one of his paintings, Jeune fille au chat, became a cover image for modern editions of Nabokov’s Lolita.) As one art critic recently noted, “Mitsou almost feels like a lost first love,” an observation that suggests that the cats in his paintings might not simply function as totemic invocations of the young girls.1

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