More Than Just a Pretty Picture: ‘Cats in Art’

This new book examines both the role cats play in society and how that has been reflected in art but don't limit it to an "art book".

Cats In Art
Desmond Morris
Reaktion Books Ltd.

Towards the beginning of his new book, Cats In Art, author Desmond Morris states that for the ancient Egyptians, cats “occupied as many as five distinct roles” in their culture: household pet, hunter, vermin killer, a popular subject for early satirical cartoon-like art, or as deities. Cats were painted on the walls of tombs seated at the feet of the lady of the house with collars around their necks, flushing out game birds alongside hunters in carvings, killing snakes in symbolic paintings, as human-like servants to royal mice in cartoons, and engraved as bronze statues of the sun goddess Bastet. The point could be made, however, that throughout the many centuries since, these cultural representations of the feline haven’t changed much.

Cats In Art explains that humans likely first took notice of cats because of their skill at catching mice and other crop-threatening pests, and shows many artistic examples depicting cats in the act of chasing or devouring prey. Some of these expressions are realistic, as if they were based on actual events the artist chose to replicate, such as a 1750 painting from India that depicts two elaborately-dressed women trying to keep their pet cat from attacking a parrot at a outdoor picnic, but all too often, depictions of predatory cats are anthropomorphic. While a 13th century bestiary illustration shows cats on their hind legs, possibly disposing of a rat and clawing at a bird in a cage, a 20th century Gerald Scarfe drawing (“Cat-astrophe”) shows a cartoonishly vicious cat ripping several birds to pieces in only shades of black, white, and red.

Later on, as cats began to prized for these skills, it was only natural that ancient peoples started to idealize these creatures as either being gods or having the appearance of gods. Though much has been made of the ancient Egyptians’ feline worship, Morris also devotes an entire chapter to the cat-based images of deities worshiped by South American tribal peoples, which decorated woven burial coverings and were embroidered onto ceremonial clothing, and provides an example of the Nordic goddess Freya, who is pictured in a chariot drawn by two gray tabbies in a 1865 woodcut.

Ironically, thousands of cats were slaughtered because of these ideas, as pagan religions eventually subsided and were replaced by a superstitious form of Christianity that associated the house cat as a tool of the devil. On that note another chapter, “Satanic Cats”, discusses the resulting hatred and persecution of cats, complete with a woodcut illustration from the 1600s depicting a cat flying through the air on a witch’s broomstick and the reminder that even today, in many countries, it’s considered an omen of bad luck if a black cat crosses your path. (I live with two black cats, and they’ve brought me nothing but happiness.)

Stereotypes still abound about cats, with even the usually enlightened author making a mistake by stating that “they stubbornly kept their independence, even when they were tamed and domesticated. They never became the slaves of men in the way dogs, horses, and cattle did.” The book’s jacket declares that the cat is the “most graceful, stubborn, and agile of creatures”, another well-meaning, yet misguided assumption. From my own experiences with cats (and other types of animals), each animal is his own individual. While we can scientifically explain some feline behaviors (like self-washing or kneading), humans tend to make cats more or less anthropomorphic by assuming that all cats think or act a certain way, and our art certainly shows that.

On the other hand, art featuring cats sometimes reflects the general kindness or cruelty exhibited in society at the time. For example, the ancient Greeks, who endorsed slavery and pedophilia, carved images of a man drowning a cat and young people enticing a malnourished cat to fight a dog. On the opposite end of that spectrum, medieval monks and nuns wrote about and pictured themselves with beloved pet cats. Paintings in the late 1500s and up until the 18th century often show cats being teased or at least acting uncomfortable around regular people, or as generally motionless props in the background of portraits of wealthy women, but as society generally weaned itself off of various cat-based superstitions, paintings like Marguerite Gerard’s “The Cat’s Lunch” and the work of Henriette Ronner-Knip reflected the cat’s new-found respectable role as a beloved pet.

Most of the artwork in Cats In Art is of house cats, and much of it makes realistic statements about the life and experiences of these pets. Just as Charles Burton Barber’s “Coaxing Is Better Than Teasing” shows a little girl with a bowl of milk being happily nuzzled by her pet tabby in 1883, Charles Wysocki’s “Frederick the Literate” shows another tabby contentedly snoozing on a bookshelf. However, some artists have chosen to show the negative aspects of a domesticated life, like a second century Roman mosaic that shows a cat with a pained expression on his face at the sight of a gathering of birds he can’t catch, or Utagawa Hiroshige’s 1858 woodblock print, “Cat on Window”, which the author explains as capturing “the resigned frustration of a cat that is confined to an indoor life”.

Morris also believes that, “For every artist portraying some other animal, there seem to be a hundred favoring the cat”, and much of the book deals with the cat-related art of famous artists. Leonardo da Vinci’s rough sketches of oddly long-nosed cats are featured, as well as Monet’s “Sleeping Cat”, Picasso’s “Jacqueline with Cat”, and Warhol’s “25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy”.

At another point, the author states that, “As an image, the feline form seems to have a very special appeal, both to the artists and to those who enjoy looking at pictures”, and the latter part of the book shows examples of art featuring cats for satirical and/or symbolic purposes. A Russian cartoon depicting rats holding an elaborate funeral for a cat makes a political and social statement, while drawings by Ronald Searle (“Unusually Repulsive Cat Startled by a Gesture of Affection” and “Vegetarian Cat Regarding a Plate of Fried Eggs”) point out truths about the harsh treatment currently endured by some cats. The final chapter, “Street Art Cats” shows that even these images often have a political or altruistic meaning, as Banksy’s artwork of a kitten seemingly playing with a ball of mangled wire is said to be symbolic of the situation in Gaza and a semi-realistic 2013 outdoor painting of an unrealistically yellow tabby on a wall in Malaysia was designed to raise awareness for the charitable organization 101 Lost Kittens Project.

Cats in Art isn’t really so much of an “art book” as it is a book about cats in general, with an emphasis on society’s changing ideas about felines and anecdotal stories about artists and their experiences with cats. It contains a total of 137 images, some of which take up an entire, almost 8×10 page, but more often than not, these reproductions are reduced to half or even a quarter of that size. The paper is adequately thick and glossy, but one gets the impression that the main reason why the book clocks in at 247 pages is because of its semi-large, centered text. Occasionally, the text even goes on to confusingly describe and explain artworks that aren’t pictured.

However, while many art books are written dryly, with overly complicated language, Morris writes in a warm, informative way with his enthusiasm and knowledge about his subjects clearly on display in words that could be understood by a child, but in no way panders or talks down to the reader. Altogether, Cats In Art” makes for a good read, but would have made for a better book if it included more and larger images.

RATING 7 / 10


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