BALTHUS. Rainer Maria RILKE, preface. ~ Mitsou. Quarante Images par Baltusz. Erlenbach-Zurich and Leipzig: Rotapfel-Verlag, [ 1921].
Large 8vo (246 × 185 mm), pp. 13, , including initial blank and half-title, 40 monochrome plates. Original paper wrappers over plain limp boards. Very light browning to portions of wrappers, spine with minimal creasing and chips to head and foot. A superior copy of a scarce and fragile book.
First edition of this story without words, the tale of the artist’s lost cat, with plates from drawings by the 11-year old Balthasar Klossowski, later Balthus (1908-2001). Unsurprisingly, it is Balthus’ first appearance in print but it was also his only illustrated book. It also includes an introduction by Rainer Maria Rilke—his first published text in French, considered ‘a turning point in his own career’ (Freedman, p. 370).
Balthus created these intense and singular drawings in 1919, heavily inked to appear rather like woodcuts perfect for photomechanical reproduction. At the time, his mother, the artist Baladine Klossowska was intensely involved with Rilke, artistically and romantically. Rilke arranged for publication and added his famous introduction, which perhaps accounted for the initial success of the book. ‘Qui connait les chats?’ he asks. ‘Se peut-il, par exemple que vous prétendiez les connaïtre? J’avoue que, pour moi, leur existence ne fut jamais qu’une hypothése passablement risquée’. Once could almost say it provided a philosophical template for cat-lovers. Certainly the book became a touchstone for Balthus, as he became noted (and notorious) for his stark and enigmatic depictions of young girls, often with a cat within reach. In 1935 he even painted himself as ‘Roi des chats’ and frequently presented himself as a mystery, cat-like, about which nothing could be known.
The original drawings were given by Baladine to Rilke on Balthus’s request. They remained in the Rilke family, supposedly lost, until they were exhibited for the first time in 2014 (‘Balthus: Cats and Girls,’ Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The book was printed in a single edition until a reprint of 1984. The artist’s only other attempt at an illustrated book was the sequence of drawings for Wuthering Heights (1933-5) which remained unpublished. Monnier and Clair, Balthus: Catalogue raisonné (1999), pp. 480-4, I 1512-55. Freedman, Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke (1996).