Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Louis Wain; Society cats, Lodestars, Symptoms of schizophrenia and a Sulky Siberian cat...

Our sulky Siberian...
The months of May, June and now almost July have come and gone, in an array of packed-up possessions as we finally moved out of our lovely house to settle into a flat which is decidedly smaller in size.
Oggie the Siberian cat was not impressed by the fact that he longer had access to his favourite items of furniture in the house to sprawl out on, perch on or occupy in one feline way or another. Even his choice table from which he devotedly spied on the blackbirds' activity finally went off to the new address and then we were just down to the basics before the longest house-move in history came to an end! He did seem amused yet bemused in the first stages of the mass sort-out as cupboards and wardrobes were emptied of their contents. All of us were pleased to rediscover long-lost items that re-surfaced from behind and below and beyond various parts of the house. The cat was particularly happy to find numerous Christmas decorations that he had ravaged off the Christmas tree.
He seemed to sulk a little in the initial  packing-and-panic process but then appeared to take a more philosophical stance on the whole issue, as indeed we all did.
Detail from A boy and a girl with a cat and an eel. Judith Leyster 1635

During the boxing-up of belongings I came across a postcard that represents a rather cheesed-off cat, and thought the resemblance was quite striking between the cat shown and our sulky Oggie. I just love the general exasperated expression of the poor cat! I initially thought my picture was just an animal portrait, but in fact the cat is just one of the three characters in the original painting - the other two protagonists being mischievious children busy irritating the cat in question!

A boy and a girl, with cat. Judith Leyster 1635

As is apparent from the style of  the piece, it is work from the Dutch Golden Age in art - during 17th century. In such genre paintings and still lives reflecting contemporary life and questioning Life in general, it was common to depict children in order to show the foolishness and foibles of human (adult) behaviour. The message here would perhaps be, 'He who plays with fire gets burnt', or in this case, scratched. The unhapppy cat prepares his sharpened claws to silence the children and put an end to their relentless teasing as the young innocents play with their furry friend using an eel. While the style of the painting is indeed reminiscent of the work of Frans Hals, what is interesting to note here is that the artist was, in fact, a women. This in itself was quite a mean feat, for relatively few artists were female, but the fact that this painter, Judith Leyster (1609-1660), met with considerable success during her creative period is more remarkable still. Leyster was one of the renowned genre painters of the era, with her lively scenes of daily life, yet her fame was to diminish after her death to the point that many of her works were even attributed to her contemporary male artists. Her work reflected the style of the Utrecht school wherein  dramatic play of light - chiaroscuro - reminiscent of Caravaggio - brought out elements of each scene to great effect. However, unlike her male counterparts Leyster would emphasise the more jovial aspects of the social scene depicted, or otherwise give a more 'feminine' interpretation to a situation...
The Proposition. Judith Leyster 1631

In The Proposition, the expression of the woman makes it clear that she finds the presumably lecherous proposition in question as unappealing and irritating as the children's game is for the cat in A boy and a girl with a cat. Just how much Leyster's artistic style 'owed' the great Hals (1582-1666) is questionable. For a time the two artists appeared to share the same type of subject matter, with scenes of taverns, musicians, card-players and general merry-makers abounding, as the artists' creative periods overlapped.

Self portrait 1630
So, indeed, women artists such as Judith Leyster were a very rare breed and not surprisingly she was the only female member of the the painters' guild in Haarlem. Her Self Portrait 1635 was a presentation piece for the guild.

With a touch of pride perhaps, she signed her work JL and used the symbol of a lodestar to link the two letters, referring back to the name leyster, and also pointing to her role as a leading star. As an indication of her success Leyster had several students working under her in her workshop and in fact Hals is said to have poached one of Leyster's students for his own benefit. Despite a shining, prolific period of productivity from 1629-1635 her life of considerable creativity, talent and independance was to change dramatically. Following her marriage to a fellow artist, Jan Molenaer, and the subsequent arrival of several children Leyster's artistic production faded, as the lodestar lost its creative lustre. In devoting herself largely to her role of wife and mother Leyster had insufficient time and energy for her art which fell into the shadows and her name into relative oblivion.
Cat by Louis Wain.
Just as I was thinking how much women's lives and destinies in general have often been moulded by their marital status and the demands of motherhood I came across another 'unknown' yet famous cat portraitist.... More accurately speaking, my daughter found an old birthday card and felt that the cat looked not unlike our cat....
Traditionally at least,  the woman takes a central position in the family constellation to the extent that while she gains through the complexity and wealth of the lives that gravitate around her, her own individual identity as a sole being is largely compromised. This situation is even more marked for female artists, perhaps, however, it is not one reserved solely for women.... artistic or not. Louis Wain (1860-1939) was an individual whose existence was largely shaped by the demands made of him by his widowed mother and her large brood of spinster daughters (five in all). Obliged to provide for this matriarchal household on the death of his father, Louis Wain became a freelance artist specializing in animal and landscape studies and was to go on to marry his sisters' governess. The marriage was, alas, short-lived as the new Mrs Wain soon became ill with cancer and was to die three years after their wedding. However, just as Wain's female charges affected his life, his duties as devoted husband were to lead him to his true field of creativity - one that would define his career, his own persona and, tragically, maybe even his mental state.... Cats!
Louis Wain

Using the family cat, Peter, to entertain his sick wife, Wain dressed the animal in costumes and persuaded it to perform tricks - often imitating human activities such as reading - all of which he would capture in numerous feline sketches. At a time when a cat was solely a beast to kill vermin, rather than the endearing household companions we take them for today, this was quite unusual, and surely Wain had a part to play in this change of perception.

He was to become the chairman of the National Cat Club at the turn of the century and its logo today is still based on work provided by the artist.
Cat Club logo

 Wain acknowledged Peter's contributions "To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the development of my initial efforts". The anthropomorphised cats that figure in Wain's drawings from the late 1880's are largely an extension of these early works and were met with great appreciation from the Victorian public - adults and children alike. Indeed, as Victorian sentimentality grew these images were devoured in greeting card form or as book illustrations. Wain's cats would ironically reflect the human behaviour of contemporary society - so that the frequently fickle fashions, fads and fancies were satirically portrayed to great success - a little like a feline Dutch genre work.
 Financial and material success were to elude Louis Wain, however. Not only was he at the head of a demanding female household, but he also appears to have lacked the business nous to meet and fully understand his financial engagements and investments. An unfortunate sequence of events was to lead to his fall from a relatively comfortable existence to one of great hardship. An unsuccessful trip to New York, bad business deals, the death of Wain's mother coincided with a dwindling interest in the animal antics and the advent of the First World War. Wain's financial situation was dire, but of more concern still was his mental health which had started to decline dramatically. Whilst it is thought that Wain was born with Asperger's Syndrome, in 1920's symptoms of schizophrenia started to be manifest to the extent that Wain was finally committed to a mental hospital in 1924. At this point his drawings of the faithful felines that had accompanied him throughout his adult life became increasingly abstract as unusual patterns, with wallpaper-like repetitive psychedelic backgrounds and strange flower formations intertwine the cat subjects. Certain works remind me a little of a Rorschach inkblot test and indeed many have even been used to give a visual tracking of the progression of schizophrenia.
Louis Wain - Images used to show the progression of his mental illness.

When Wain's sad condition became public knowledge several famous figures intervened - H.G Wells and the Prime Minister being just two examples - and sought to have Wain transferred from the impoverished pauper's psychiatric ward  to a more suitable institution. So it was that Wain was to spend the last fifteen years of his life surrounded by hospital gardens with their resident collection of cats, enabling him to continue his art in  relative peace, even as his mental health diminished further.
Alice and the Chesire cat by David Tenniel.
Ironically, it is now believed that the beloved cats that had so marked his life, art and person were a cause of his mental decline. Toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection borne by contaminated cats acting as vectors, leads to many medical conditions - the onset of blindness, the alteration of personality and modification of behaviour being just some. In its more extent forms, Toxoplasmosis may be the catalyst to severe mental health issues and was perhaps the source of Wain's symptoms of schizophrenia. Whatever the cause of his mental decline, Wain is an example of dramatic artistic creativity highlighting aspects of an illness (rather like the Victorian artist Richard Dadd). Today, finally  Wain's work appears to be getting the recognition it deserves as artists of all kinds cite his artistic endeavours. Musician Nick Cave curated an exhibition of his work in Australia in 2009 and another cat-lover, Tracey Emin, has declared herself a Wain enthusiast.

So, this leads me onto a final illustrated cat - whose grin certainly seems a little more enigmatic and maybe a little dangerous to me now.... The Chesire cat from Alice in Wonderland, by Victorian artist David Tenniel.

And here's Oggie, who positioned himself on my laptop of his own free will, making the most of the hot air coming from the ventilation grid on the computer - rapidly overheating - as if to prove that he too can manage a keyboard, albeit it in his own fashion, just as we humans can.  As H.G Wells said," English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves".  Judging by his expression, our Anglo-Siberian-French feline is most proud of himself!
Oggie warming himself...

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