Feline fetishists

So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.

— T. S. Eliot

As I’m currently preparing a new series of cat drawings for the Kittytees, and had the pleasure of meeting Alice, my good friends’ cat last Saturday, I thought that I could dedicate this post to cats. Cats and artists – what a cliché, but well, there must be a special chemistry between the two species since the number of famous artists and writers who owned cats is astonishing. Be it the desire to express individuality, the unpredictability shared by both parties or simply the splendid company cats provide to an often solitary artist, they seem to be admired, adored, and fetishized.

“I can’t conceive of a life without cats,” said Edward Gorey, who had six of them.

Salvador Dali had a Colombian ocelot called Babou. In an article dedicated to their friendship, we can read that “the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), also known as the dwarf leopard or McKenney’s wildcat, is a species of wild cat found predominantly in South and Central America. It is similar in appearance to a domestic cat, although its fur resembles that of a clouded leopard or jaguar.” Babou accompanied the artist pretty much everywhere, including smart restaurants and a voyage aboard the luxury ocean liner the SS France, causing a great stir.

Dali was not the only one who had exotic species of cat. Ernest Hemingway, who found comfort in feline company when he was depressed, had several cats, including Snowball, a six-toed (polydactyl) cat, given to him by a ship’s captain in 1935. (A polydactyl cat is one with a genetic mutation that causes it to be born with more than the usual number of toes on one or more of its paws.)

Balthus had a serious cat obsession, and cats were a recurring subject of his mysterious paintings. His first feline love was Mitsou, adopted in 1918.When the cat disappeared a year later, the boy was in such a state of distress that he made 40 graphite and ink drawings about his loss. These drawings were later shown to Rainer Maria Rilke, a close friend of Balthus’s mother, and appeared in a small book with an introduction by Rilke himself, published in 1921.

Henri Matisse loved his two cats: Minouche and Coussi; Klimt had Katze; Kandinsky — Vaske. Paul Klee, whose paintings often depict cats, was so devoted to his kitty that when he was away teaching, he would often write to his wife asking only about Bimbo. There is a whole book about the artist’s love for cats, The Cosmic Cats of Paul Klee, for which Klee took the photographs himself. He also celebrated them in some of his work.

Jean Cocteau’s cat Karoun, also known as the “King of Cats”, wore a collar around his neck with the inscription, “Cocteau belongs to me.” Agnès Varda, a French film director, said that all you need in life is: “a computer, a camera, and a cat.” Ai Weiwei has more than three dozen cats. In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry documentary film directed by Alison Klayman , the artist says: “I have 40 cats. Only one can open doors. If I never met a cat who opens doors, I would have thought that cats couldn’t open doors.”

Picasso had his beloved Minou (there is even a book based on a real incident with his kitty bringing the artist home a sausage to share, called Picasso and Minou by P.I. Maltbie.). During the time Andy Warhol lived with his mother he owned 25 cats, all of whom were apparently named Sam (except for one named Hester). Together they created a book called 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy. He illustrated a book of drawings of the cats, and his mother did the calligraphy. It was published in limited editions, each with a different color scheme, which he gave to art directors as gifts.

There are also artists who not only loved cats, but dedicated their art to depicting felines, often in an anthropomorphizing way. One of those artists was Louis Wain, who, in the eyes of H. G. Wells, “has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”

I will finish the post with a photograph of Gorey with his felines, his illustration from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to Macavity: The Mystery Cat, as well as the poem itself.

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw–
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime–Macavity’s not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime–Macavity’s not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air–
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square–
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s.
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair–
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair–
But it’s useless to investigate–Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
“It must have been Macavity!”–but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macacity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
At whatever time the deed took place–MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!