Cats in art

Posted on Feb 28, 2014
Cats in art

As most of us know, besides porn, the Internet gravitates towards cats. That, among many things, is why I – and probably you too – waste too much time on the web. So, guess what the most viewed page on this website is?
Yes, it’s the one with all the cats.

Morgana © Martijn Savenije

Morgana © Martijn Savenije

But the World’s fascination with cats isn’t new. The cultural depiction of cats goes back over 9.500 years. The exact history is a bit sketchy but one of the oldest signs of cat-human relationships dates back to the Neolithic period, approximately 7.500 BC. In Cyprus a ceremonial grave was found containing a human skeleton, stone tools, a lump of iron oxide and seashells. Next to it? A tiny grave for an eight-month-old cat, buried in the same westward direction.

Later, the ancient Egyptians worshipped a cat-like goddess, Bastet, the goddess of war. And from there it’s only a hop, skip and jump to the worshipping of the all-holy Grumpy Cat.

Naturally, there’s a wide variety of manifestations of devotion to cats. Cats have also always had their place in art. Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Renoir, and many, many more artists have drawn, painted, photographed or sculpted cat figures. Let me take you through some of my favorites.

Thérèse Dreaming – Balthus
Balthus, who referred to himself as the Thirteenth King of Cats, regularly focused on the feline form in his works. Balthus has become famous for his paintings girls at the brink of puberty, sometimes with their furry friends.
When he was 11 years old he fell in love with a stray cat, Mitsou. After losing the cat he drew 40 graphite-and-ink drawings about the experience. Rainer Maria Rilke – Balthus’ mother’s lover – liked the drawings so much that he arranged their publication and wrote the foreword. Cats have been present in Balthus’ work ever since.

'Thérèse Dreaming' by Balthus, 1938.

‘Thérèse Dreaming’ by Balthus, 1938.

'Dali Atomicus' by Philippe Halsman in collaboration with Salvador Dali, 1948

‘Dalí Atomicus’ by Philippe Halsman in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, 1948

Dalí Atomicus – Philippe Halsman
In Paris in the 1930s, photographer Philippe Halsman got to know artists of the Surrealist circle. In the late 1940s he collaborated with Salvador Dalí on several photograph projects of which Dalí Atomicus is probably the most iconic. It took them both 28 attempts to be finally satisfied with the composition of staging everything so that it appears suspended above ground.

Two nudes and a cat – Picasso
When you ask people about their favorite artist, one of the most heard answers is Picasso. Not a lot is known about Picasso’s relationship to cats, but they are included in a variety of his paintings, such as Cat Eating a Bird (1939) or Dora Maar au Chat (1941). The one I like best is Two nudes and a cat, 1903. Let me explain why.
One of the reasons I enjoy cats so much, is because they don’t give a damn about you or what you’re doing. I think that a self-reinforcing part of the appeal of cats. I love my cat, but I can never really figure out if she loves me back. And isn’t unanswered love usually the most intense?

'Two nudes and a cat' by Pablo Picasso, 1903

‘Two nudes and a cat’ by Pablo Picasso, 1903

To me, this Picasso drawing shows just that. I’ll ignore commenting on the nudes, just look at that cat. Minding its own business, but still in the picture, demanding to be an important part of our lives. That’s what cats do. When you don’t give them attention, they’ll make sure they get it sooner rather than later.

'Cat' by Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942)

‘Cat’ by Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942)

'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy' by David Hockney, 1971

‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ by David Hockney, 1971

In that respect the Picasso drawing is a predecessor of the popular Tumblr Indifferent Cats in Amateur Porn (NSFW). Yes, when you click that link, you’ll see graphic displays of amateur pornography – and cats. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Cat – Takeuchi Seiho
Takeuchi Seihō (1864 – 1942) was the pseudonym of a Japanese painter of the nihonga genre. Nihonga, or literally “Japanese-style paintings” are paintings that have been made in accordance with traditional Japanese artistic conventions, techniques and materials. Nihonga are typically executed on washi (Japanese paper) or eginu (silk), using brushes. In monochrome nihonga, the technique depends on the modulation of ink tones from darker through lighter to obtain a variety of shadings from near white, through grey tones to black.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – David Hockney
Painted between 1970 and 1971, the painting shows Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell shortly after their wedding. Hockney had been Clark’s best man. The cat on Clark’s knee is actually called Blanche, Percy was one of their other cats. Hockney had thought it a better name for the title though.
In a real life you’d hardly ever see a combination of cats and lillies as the flowers are poisonous to cats. In this picture the lillies signify female purity. The cat symbolises envy and infidelity, as Clark continued to have affairs which contributed to the breakdown of the marriage.

Cat People Magazine
If you still haven’t had enough of cats, I can highly recommend Cat People Magazine. If you haven’t guessed yet, when I found out about it, I immediately knew I was their target market. It’s a contemporary art magazine which features the cats and lifestyles of four cat people ranging from fashion designers to photographers. I particularly enjoyed Takashi Homma’s photo-essay.

Well, I guess that about wraps it up. Please, if you have any tips on artworks with cats, please post them in the comments below. I’m going to turn-off my computer for a while and spend some quality time with my cat who’s been prancing around on my keyboard, claiming my attention. I’m looking forward to it, because there is hardly anything quite as rewarding as a cat’s purr at the stroke of its fur.

Koosje, 2012 © Martijn Savenije

Koosje, 2012 © Martijn Savenije

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