Little Girls and Ambivalent Cats: Balthus and Martin Eder

Left: Martin Eder, Spring Awakening,  Right: Balthus, The Guitar Lesson

Left: Martin Eder, Spring Awakening         Right: Balthus, The Guitar Lesson

Balthus is a monolith standing in a sea of movements. He has no followers. Or rather had. Martin Eder too paints fantasies of naked little girls and cats. Balthus’ are simple ironies. Eder’s paintings are ironies on ironies. Balthus and Eder both work in fantasy, specifically with the fantasy of the female body, playing that adult fantasy against that other adult fantasy of childhood.

Balthus, Girl with Cat

Balthus, Girl with Cat

The simultaneous existence of the desires of both adolescence and adulthood in these young bodies manifests itself in the presence of a familiar beast – the cat, which Balthus uses as evocations of reverie. Eder takes these apparitions and pushes them to the improbable edge of felinity, until they become almost mockeries of themselves.

Martin Eder, A Year without Light, (Ein Jahr Ohne Licht)

Martin Eder, A Year Without Light

In Balthus’ work the the filth and provocation is in the painting as much as the subject. In Eder’s work, produced in an epoch in which provocation is the norm, his affronts metamorphose into kitsch, as his joy of filth representative of a generation raised on porn, is normal rather than deviant.  Balthus’ provocations emanate from ideas, keep a formalistic unity, while avoiding the photographic, whereas Eder’s affronts arise from the images, necessitating a visual uncleanliness, a hyperrealism, a cosmic illusion.

Balthus, Therese Dreaming

Balthus, Therese Dreaming

Yet besides the ambivalent felines, the naked girls, the glorious filth, what links Eder and Balthus paintings is the reverie; reverie as both imagination’s source and object, reverie exemplified by the most incomprehensible of dreamers, the most impenetrable of worlds.

Martin Eder, A Year Without Light (Detail)

Martin Eder, A Year Without Light (Detail)

Balthus, The Golden Days

Balthus, The Golden Days

Martin Eder, Cat and Girl

Martin Eder, Cat and Girl

Balthus, The Guitar Lesson

Balthus, The Guitar Lesson

Martin Eder, Spring Awakeining (Frühlingserwachen)

Martin Eder, Spring Awakening



  1. Nice comparison. It’s not surprise Balthus doesn’t really have followers. Like your point about Eder working in a era wear “filth” is the norm rather than deviant, and hence his work devolves into kitsch. Maybe that’s why Balthus’ work is still more new or unsettling. I’m not particularly a fan of his work, but that’s partly just because I’ve avoided him because of his content. Dude is a bit too obsessed with little girls.

    • Erickuns,
      Thank you for both reading and commenting. One of the most interesting experiences I had with Balthus’ work is going to the Met and seeing how people coming to a museum in the search for “Great enlightenment” by high and supposedly moral culture could not help but turn there faces away from Balthus painting. So few were able to look at the painting which is the obvious sexualization of childhood because the morals we have been taught refuse such things. And Balthus is showing us how to look, or even more so, reminding us that we have already seen. And that is exactly what is fascinating about Balthus, his (somehow appropriately aristocratic) to kowtow before the fallacy of an moral aesthetic ideal, for one of the very basic characteristics of Balthus is that he is fundamentally unreal. There is a little girl in her knickers, and a cat licking milk placed exactly at the right parallel line, enough to give us uncomfortable images, if not thoughts, but at the same time, there is nothing but paint.

      • Those are good points, however, I wonder if in the case of Balthus people are not upset by childhood sexuality, but rather, adult male sexuality projected onto female children. As you say, it is only paint, which is point that cannot be ignored, however, being only paint it is the wholly deliberate depiction and evocation of an intelligence, with little to be left to chance or palmed off on an external reality captured by a camera. So, we are left with Balthus sexualization and eroticization of young girls. I don’t know if there’s much use denying that.

        What do we do with the moral angle. What if, for example, we was a bonafide pedophile? Would this make his art worse or better? We wouldn’t leave our daughters for him to babysit, but would we shun his art?

        I think these are sticky issues there isn’t an easy answer to. One would have to give it a really good think. One doesn’t want to be too condemnatory; to make erroneous and peremptory judgements.

        I’d want to know what the artist had to say for himself.

        Balthus is most famous for the images of young girls, but he also painted adult women and landscapes. He’s a bit of a formalist in his technical approach, and comes up with elaborate designs. “Large Landscape with a Tree” is a wonderful painting, without any prurient content, and on the basis of that unknown painting alone I’d say he had a great talent.

        He was a prolific artists, and you are right that people may be blinded by their own preconceptions and easy associations to look at his work with an open mind and clear eye.

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