The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Through Jan. 12

The paintings of the Polish-French artist known as Balthus “speak directly to the rotten part of the heart,” said Christian Viveros-Fauné in The Village Voice. Visitors to the Met get only a coy, vague warning about the images they’ll encounter as they wander through this show, but it’d be “patently absurd” not to state it baldly here: Balthasar Klossowski (1908–2001) was a pedophile whose eroticized portraits of pubescent girls established him as the original “upskirt artist.” That doesn’t mean that his paintings themselves commit any crimes. The 34 here are sordid but beautiful, and they “continue to fascinate” because they push the limits of eroticism and rattle the usual barriers that separate right from wrong.

“You don’t have to be a prude” to be unsettled by Balthus’s early work, said Richard B. Woodward in The Wall Street Journal. Eight portraits of Thérèse Blanchard, his first underage muse, hang in the show’s first gallery, and in two, this girl of no more than 14 sits with her eyes closed and her legs spread to expose her white underpants. Yet “when totaling Balthus’s sins and virtues, one shouldn’t discount the strength of the young women in his paintings.” Young as Thérèse was in all these pictures, she’s “noticeably more powerful than the artist,” more solemn and mysterious than he makes himself out to be in a nearby self-portrait. Further, Balthus matured as a painter as the decades passed. By the time he painted 14-year-old Odile Bugnon reclining in front of a fire in 1946’s The Golden Days, prurience is one theme among many, and it’s muted by the abstract play of lines and ovals in the painting’s striking composition.

You call that maturity? said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Even the curator of “Cats and Girls” admits in the show’s catalog that Balthus’s later portraits of girls lacked the depth he attained in his studies of Thérèse. In fact, a series of ink drawings displayed in a middle gallery indicate that he “may have been a more complete and satisfying artist” at age 11 than he was in middle age. Cats appear frequently in Balthus’s work, and all can be traced back to Mitsou, a cat he loved and lost at about age 10. The 40 small drawings that Balthus created a year later tell Mitsou’s story and are done in such an “effortless pan-modernist style” that it’s no surprise that a family friend was able to get them published as a children’s book. The Mitsou drawings mark Balthus as a prodigy who was somehow scarred by that initial loss and never reached his potential. The rest of his career unfolds as “a study in kinds and degrees of failure.”