Fabulous felines: why female artists love stroking, painting and spoiling cats | Art

by AryanArtnews
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Fabulous felines: why female artists love stroking, painting and spoiling cats | Art

Wwhen Tracey Emin’s cat Docket went missing in 2002, the “Lost Cat” posters she put up in her east London neighborhood were stolen and valued at £500. Her gallery, White Cube, argued that they did not count as works, although some art historians said otherwise. Whoever you believe, they still pop up on eBay from time to time.

However, it is Emin’s self-portrait with Docket that I like the most. (That and her handmade cat photo book, Because I Love Him, a dream art purchase should I ever make it rich.) In the photo, Docket looks at the camera with that dead, slightly morose expression specific to cats, his impressive whiskers passing the artist’s fingers shoot out, framing his face as she pushes him from above. It’s a strikingly maternal image, and indeed Emin has in the past referred to the cat, who has sadly now left this earthly plane, as her “baby”. It comes in a long line of artistic depictions of women or girls with cats.

Cats are almost as old a subject for visual art as art itself – there are cats painted in the Lascaux cave. In ancient times they adorned ancient Egyptian tombs and the mosaics of Pompeii. The ancient, ancient association between cats and fertility, and their status as mother goddesses from the ancient Egyptian Bastet to the Greek Hecate, means that women and cats have been seen as intertwined for millennia. So it’s no surprise that they’ve been lumped together as a subject so often by everyone from Morisot to Picasso, Matisse to Kirchner, Kahlo to Freud. They appear in annunciations by Rubens, Barocci and Lotto, representing femininity, domesticity and sometimes the devil – or what the Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz calls the “feminine shadow”, the dark side of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God.

It’s no surprise that cats appear so often in paintings: artists tend to love them, perhaps because they are so defiant and independent. Plus, it’s easier to paint while caring for a cat than a dog: they don’t have to walk, although they can still stand in the way, as a beautiful photo by painter Lois Mailou Jones standing by a donkey with a kitten on her shoulder show. Meanwhile, Leonor Fini kept two dozen cats, so it’s no surprise that their fur sometimes blended with the paint on her canvases.

Demanding Companion … Woman with Cat by Pierre Bonnard. Photo: Heritage Images/Fine Art Images/Getty Images

There are some fantastic photos of Fini with her pets. In a 1961 portrait by Martine Franck, her wild dark hair is an eccentric counterpoint to the white cat’s refined appearance, while in another image she is shown wearing an evening dress as she kneels to feed six cats in her kitchen . Dora Maar’s image is perhaps the most deliberately erotic. Fini wears a low-cut corset of sorts, and a long-haired black cat is held between her open legs in a visual pun not lost on the viewer.

As anyone who has had one knows, cats are promiscuous and unfaithful, wandering the streets at night in ways women historically could not, and in Japanese art cats and courtesans sometimes go hand in hand. One netsuke even shows two cats embodying the figures of sex worker and client. But meanwhile was a cat lady herself, and when Picasso painted his lover with a black cat on her shoulder, it could be read as a symbol of her sexual, passionate self. Their relationship was tumultuous, and Maar’s claw-like hands, at least to me, seem to allude to those of a cat.

I used these images as a kind of visual mood board while writing my memoir, The Year of the Cat, which is about how adopting a cat made me think differently about motherhood, but also a strong art historical line has what runs through it. the theme of female artists and their cats. One of the first paintings I saw of a woman with a cat was at school, by the artist Gwen John. In Girl with a Cat (1918-22) the subject sits with a black cat in her arms. The young woman looked into the distance, her expression almost desperately sad. The cat, meanwhile, looks directly at the viewer with yellow eyes. John loved her cat, Tiger, and when he went missing, she slept outside hoping to tempt him home; like Emin’s Docket almost a century later, he finally returned. The love John felt for her cat, when she was so unhappily in love with the more human variety, has moved me ever since.

Two of Picasso’s earlier pictures of women and cats have a similar emotional effect. In his 1900 Woman with Cat, the subject bends forward in her bed towards the small cat she holds in her arms, as if trying to take comfort in it. Meanwhile, her 1901 Nude with Cats, sometimes called Madwoman with Cats, feels merciless to me in its portrayal of its vulnerable subject. In my book I look at the myth of the “crazy cat lady”, which has its origins in the fear of witchcraft, and how it has been used to stigmatize single and childless women. This image, painted in an asylum, felt too awkward to include, but I kept it in my mind as I wrote.

Fanatical... Leonor Fini and her press, in front of her portrait of dancer Raymond Larrain.
Fanatical… Leonor Fini and her press, in front of her portrait of dancer Raymond Larrain. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Much more cheered are Suzanne Valadon’s cat paintings. Another cat lover – she fed them caviar – Valadon painted her cat Raminou several times, as well as other cats. Although she treats them with the respect due to a proper subject for a painting, there is a playfulness in the way she conveys their stony expressions. She manages to capture the dull arrogance that is essentially the essence of cat. Her pictures of women with cats are even better, 1919’s Jeune Fille au Chat is my favorite, perhaps because the girl in it looks so happy holding the animal, while the animal itself seems to simply tolerate the interaction, which reminds me of my own cat Mackerel’s standoffish nature.

To see Valadon herself with her cat – in this case a white one – we have to rely on Marcel Leprin’s painting of her, in which she wears a formidable expression. She may not have claws, but much like the animals she loved so much, Valadon, a laundress’s daughter who amazed Degas with her talent when she showed him her drawings, was rebellious and not to be messed with not – a far cry from the demure dancer she played when she modeled for Renoir.

That male artists should use cats as a way to eroticize the objectified female nude will not be a surprise to anyone. In Félix Vallotton’s La Paresse, a naked woman lies on a bed, her hand outstretched to caress the cat. In a Masaya Nakamura photo, we only see the curve of her backside and her pointy feet while a black cat stares in the direction of her genitals. I much prefer Pierre Bonnard’s more humane portrayal of an annoyed-looking woman, sitting fully clothed at the table with a plate of food while the “demanding cat” of his title harasses her. Or even better, Lotte Laserstein’s 1928 Self-Portrait with a Cat, in which her head-on gaze seems to challenge the viewer, as the disgruntled figure the animal she holds in her lap seems ready to strike if necessary. It’s like they’re both challenging you to say something: call Laserstein a crazy catwoman at your peril.

Using cats to eroticize the female nude... Laziness by Félix Vallotton, from 1896.
Using cats to eroticize the female nude… Laziness by Félix Vallotton, from 1896. Photo: Heritage Images/Getty Images

You could say that cats and artists have something in common: both groups have historically pissed off and refused to conform to the rules that society tries to impose on them. Women artists are of course particularly marginalized, and how one goes about juggling a creative career with motherhood remains an ongoing question, one of the many I pose in my book. Emin, who has no children, said she would have resented leaving her studio for them if she had any. It would be rude to suggest that a cat could be a kind of surrogate child, if Emin hadn’t made it explicit herself.

Centuries after the witch hunts, the love that women – especially childless women – have for cats is mocked and stigmatized to this day. That’s why I’m so delighted with the photos of Brooke Hummer, who asked various catwomen to pose in the style of historical paintings, their styles ranging from 19th-century colonial to surreal. These funny, festive images subvert the shameful stereotype of the cat lady. My favorite is a pastiche of a medieval painting of the Madonna and Child, but instead of a baby, the Virgin Mary is holding a tabby cat. Laugh if you want, she seems to be saying, but cat love is true love.

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