Metropolitan Cats, 1983—A History of Cats at The Met | From the Vaults

(bright music) (otherworldly music) They’re a part of nature that one can bring inside the house. They are the interim step between the wild animal and culture and civilization. They’re such a source for man’s imagination, they’ve inspired music.
(gentle music) Art. Sculpture, poetry. They’ve been deified. Cats, through art history, have always had all sorts of meanings associated with them. Of course, they’re beautiful. They’re absolutely beautiful to look at. All cats are beautiful, even ugly cats are beautiful. And goodness knows, the cat has been depicted in art as long as we’ve had art. There are 4,000 years of cats in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They may be hiding, but they’re there. (cheerful music) My all-time favorite cat is called “The Favorite Cat.” That’s that wonderful American engraving by Currier and Ives. It’s a small print, but when it’s blown up, it’s like the large Andy Warhol portraits of Mao. It’s sort of a big brother cat. It confronts you. You gotta make a decision about it. And he certainly is the favorite cat. You can tell by the marvelously placid expression on his face. He’s fat, he’s well cared for. He probably gets cream all the time. Those eyes are watching you. I get the feeling like there are little cameras back there, recording everything you do. I think the one thing that I’ve found with cats, which is why I’ve not been involved with them, is they do not bend to human will. They absolutely do control their own environment. I mean, a cat takes over a chair, for example, and you move around them, to some extent. I mean, the cat likes one end of our sofa. Well, we squeeze to (laughs) the other end. (laughs) (car horn honking) There’s a real problem, there’s a real problem. The cat is going to get that chocolate. So he’s looking at her and saying, “How can you do this to me? “I just want a little bit.” The little girl has become aware of it. She’s enclosing the bowl with one hand, and has a fist with a spoon in it in the other hand, just ready to beat off that cat. Well, you know the cat’s gonna win. This is by an artist, Steinlen, who knew cats, who drew them and painted them his entire life. It’s real. One hates to admit that something that’s only about 10 inches high is boss. I think most cats think they’re superior to humans. I’m sure mine think they’re smarter than I am, and they probably are. Because they always manage to get what they want. I don’t all the time get what I want. (cat purring) This cat is a horse of another color. Should this cat get up and walk around, we’d know he’d have to have a swagger stick. I think Steinlen was the one who recognized the absolute linear beauty of the cat. He certainly understood cats. He studied them very closely. There’s an affection in the way he did this. The ears, the little feathers of the hair. The nose, the pinkness of it. The paw curl. There’s an individuality to this cat. Well, the Steinlen made me think of the way they sprawl. Especially when you’re going to bed at night, and the cats are on your bed. They have a presence that’s much larger than their actual size. I mean, their legs go out and they stretch, and sometimes they push you out. My wife has always never minded the cats sprawling with us. Sometimes I push her out. The cat, not my wife. (laughs) (interviewer laughing) (otherworldly music) There’s a marvelous control of design that pervades Japanese art. This is so full of life, and so full of movement, and so full of sinew. Look at this. That’s action painting (laughs) of the best sort. The eyes, I mean, if you took just everything out of the picture except the eyes and the victim (laughs), you’d have what a cat is. This cat really looks slightly mad, I think. (laughs) This is a typical example of cat humor. Cat sees frog, cat captures frog, cat either kills frog or loses frog. You take your domestic cat out to the country, and all of a sudden, it becomes the predator. And it goes into the fields, and you watch your miniature lion or your miniature (laughing) tiger stalking. And then the silly little thing will come back in with a rabbit and put it at your feet. It’s domesticated again. And there is no other animal that I can think of that has that intriguing combination of wildness and domesticity. Maybe that’s what’s so attractive about them. The ambiguity. (fight bell ringing) The way that Max Schmeling was eventually defeated by Joe Louis in the second match was the Louis looked at the newsreels of the first match, and the idea of Max Schmeling telegraphing his punch gave Louis the advantage. (cat hissing)
(crowd cheering) (fists thudding) And I think cats are a little dumb in that they telegraph their interest. They’ll follow something along very carefully, and then pounce. It’s a lovely thing to watch a cat spot its victim, sneak up on its victim, and capture it. (birds chirping) The cat’s coat is literally spots of color, especially on his back, the same way an impressionist understood the visible world to be spots of color. Oh, yes. (gentle music) A very typical scene. Renoir, who loved texture, probably loved the texture of the cat’s fur, and obviously does in this particular painting. The cat will reach up and nibble off the tips of every single leaf. The woman was a model that Renoir painted often. She actually became Madame Renoir. Every leaf on the lower fringes have been very nearly chopped off. (laughs) He has very skillfully and beautifully given us the softness, the fluffiness. It’s a losing battle. He has given so perfectly the texture of the fur. I’ve tried lemon, I’ve tried garlic. It’s a cat-like cat. I’ve tried spanking the cat. It’s its own self. I’ve tried moving the plant. Focused on something. I’ve tried everything. I think his eyes are closed. Cats should eat plants, but when they’re your plants in your living room, it is annoying. But when you let him outside, he’ll spend most of the day grazing like a cow. (laughs) It seems to me extremely important to have cats on so many Islamic pictures which show saintly personalities because the Prophet Muhammad was a great cat lover, and there is a famous story that once, a cat slept on the Prophet’s sleeve and he had to get up for his prayer. He did not want to disturb the animal, so he took scissors and cut the sleeve so that the cat could go on sleeping. When the Prophet loves something, every Muslim is bound to love the same thing. (cat purring) (gentle music) This absolutely adorable Persian cat is depicted in an unadorable way. He is intent on getting some of that food, and he is so interested in that that he’s forgetting to be adorable. So beady-eyed, it’s funny. But even so, one of the ladies is still caressing him as he inches closer and closer to the food. That’s the way cats are. They want some of what you’re eating. It’s also an allegorical thing because the cat has symbolized many things in art throughout the ages. Good and evil, domesticity and wildness. (leaves crinkling) (birds chirping) There’s a lot more here than simply this particular view of Mount Fuji. (woman singing in foreign language) The cat just very coolly looks out into the landscape. You can see a towel and a bowl there, and as you look a little more carefully, you can see, to the left, you have the back of a screen, and on the floor, on the green tatami mats, just inside the screen, you see a piece of paper in which the combs, the ornamental hairpieces that were worn by these women, is kept. She’s obviously getting dressed, either in anticipation, or after some episode. The cat peering out from the window sill, over the landscape, stands for the courtesan for the geisha herself. (woman singing in foreign language) (frog croaking) (birds chirping) Cats are represented in Chinese art much later than in Japanese art, which is unusual because usually the developments in Japanese art came after. The reason for that is said to be the old legend that when Buddha died, representatives of all the species in the animal kingdom came to his funeral except for cats. The eyes have a definite kind of occult look. An interior communication with something that you can’t touch or see. You never really know what a cat’s thinking. They’re very inscrutable when they’re looking at you. I think we probably read more into those heads than is really in them. They’re probably just thinking about little Friskies or something. (laughs) (bluesy music) The most personal art of all may be folk art, but folk may be the wrong word. Perhaps a better word would be naive, untainted by academic training. (rooster crowing) “Lady with Her Pets” is an absolutely charming painting by an American primitive who worked in Duxbury, Massachusetts, named Rufus Hathaway. I like it because it’s so strange. The thing I really like is her wig and the feathers that are sticking out of it. They’re totally mad and eccentric, just like her collection of birds, butterflies, and cat. And all of her pets are sitting for their portrait. She’s really into them, she likes them, and she wants them to be noted for (laughing) posterity too. It’s such an amusing portrait. She’s been made to sit there, and she is not one bit happy. This is a little girl, this is a cat. The artist in this case didn’t understand the way a cat was put together or the way a cat really looked. Early portraitists often gave children a toy or a pet. They’d look more comfortable, but she certainly doesn’t. No, she’s not enjoying anything. She’s not even enjoying holding her little cat. She really looks, it’s almost like Gertrude Stein. I mean, she looks (laughing) very– This kid hates the painter, but she doesn’t hate the cat. (laughs) (dramatic music) This is something completely different. Calder emphasized the ferocious and predatory nature of cats. It’s just one line that tells you everything. He just takes that pen, and he moved it, and he felt it, and you could feel it as a result. It’s amazing what that man could do with a line. Complicated. Very complicated. Very, very hostile. Look at the meeting of the cat’s teeth with the cock’s underbelly. I mean, it’s really very savage. It’s a typical Calder stabile, but it’s just instead of being in metal, it’s just in black and white on a page. So many of the other paintings and drawings are beautiful, but this really expresses everything about the cat and its victim. I can’t imagine anybody looking at this and not really feeling it. Currier and Ives did a lot of kitty cats, a lot of what are called sentimentals. Little cats, little birds, all sort of doing cutesy things. Here, we have the cat who was the good little house cat who disappeared. Went out and did her binge, and wasn’t watching herself, and came home pregnant, and she’s bringing all of her cute little kittens, and aren’t they sweet? The happy hooker with her wages of sin. And at the same time, if their daughter had done the same thing, I mean, that, this was just very typical of America in the mid-19th century. ♪ Meow ♪ I think cats are night people, and they want to play all night long. For the last three weeks, I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night by the screams of that little cat. ♪ Meow ♪ I hear the, “Meow!” But I can’t even do it right, because it’s one of the most sick sounds I’ve ever heard. ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Ow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ I love the little mice hanging from his (laughing) belt. Little meals, little snacks for the future. ♪ Meow ♪ And are they mouse heads around his neck? Birds’ heads? Oh my. (laughs) Oh, that’s clever. I love this Gustave Dore illustration. Now, here’s a cat that’s really drawn as if it’s a human shouting for help for his master who’s fallen into the water. To me, the cat is like on an opera stage, and he’s singing “Di Quella Pira” from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” I mean, doesn’t he seem to be a very operatic cat with an operatic cape, cap, immense plume, fabulous boots? ♪ Meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow ♪ I’ve always admired cats with their own attributes, and not our own imposed upon them. I enjoy cats for themself. I don’t need to make them into something else. I would prefer to see a cat acting like a cat rather than Puss in Boots. Although an exception to that would definitely be “The Pink Panther.” ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ Here is this young Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, or whatever. (Spanish guitar music) And just out of playfulness, going to have him put a live bird down in front of two absolutely agile, eager cats. Two cats, three cats. Many people don’t realize that there’s a third cat in that picture. And the one in the background looms as sort of a great, black presence. All you can see are the two eyes glowing in the dark. Goya’s cats are just marvelous. The curiosity of the cat watching this bird. The pet magpie that you know perfectly well, if the little boy wasn’t there, the magpie wouldn’t last very long. The little boy is just too perfect to be true, isn’t he? Well, there’s about to be an absolute massacre. With his perfect little suit and his little sash. Animals always liven up a picture. The caged child, caged in his clothes, you know? They clearly would like to pounce. They’d do anything to get a bird. Impending disaster. (laughs) He is going to grow up, and he, too, will prey on others in a much more knowing and willful way than he does now. I think Goya understood their beauty, but he also understood their implications, and I think, in his painting, he used the three cats to imply another layer of meaning to the composition. Everyone is a captive there. The cats haven’t pounced, and they don’t look like they’re about to pounce. The bird on a leash is a captive, and I assume, therefore, that one has to extrapolate that maybe this young nobleman is a captive of the society that he is in. Goya didn’t have such a cute version of the world. His whole vision of the world was disaster, wasn’t it? (explosions booming) These were very difficult and very troubled times in the history of Spain. This child, he’s growing up in the midst of literally warring forces which were going to tear the country apart. There’s a dimension to the people that Goya painted. With some characters, it’s a sense of sadness. With others, it’s a sense of confinement. With others, it’s a sense of rebellion. (Spanish guitar music) This is interesting because it’s executed in both tempera and oil. It’s by a Flemish painter who was active about 1500, who is known as the master of the story of Joseph, Joseph being the Biblical Joseph. In many of the pictures in which cats appear, the cat is endowed with a range of human emotions, which either says something about the particular painting or the theme of the painting, or perhaps about the cat’s own attitude toward human events around him. I think it’s almost ominous. That furrowed brow, and looking outward and slightly askew. Not looking you right in the eye. There’s a cruelty there. A kind of, “I’m going to take what I can get “and I don’t give a damn about anybody else.” Well, he’s not a very endearing cat. (laughs) He looks more like a monkey. He’s a fat, squat little beast. He almost looks like a rat. I suspect that, in the 16th century, cats probably didn’t have a terribly happy life. (dog barking) They probably did have to scavenge for food, and they probably weren’t too healthy. The artist probably wasn’t approaching the cat (laughing) from a very positive viewpoint. Oh, the cat was very important in medieval society. They were a means of ridding the cities, particularly, of pests. (exotic music) A cat is one of the very few animals that will attack a snake and kill it. Most animals won’t, and you know, there always have been a lot of snakes in Egypt. There still are. Also, cats were used to guard the grain stores. By being the enemy of such animals as mice, and especially reptiles, which have a very negative press as far as the Egyptian religion is concerned, the cat, therefore, moves into the realm of religion. At times in Egyptian history, the cat was a sacred animal. They’ve been deified. And there were temples to cats, and there were entire cat cemeteries with thousands of mummified cats. This sculpture is probably one of my favorite Metropolitan cats. We make our bronze cat in much the same way that the Egyptians did 3,000 years ago. (liquid burbling) Essentially, the technological differences are summed up in the heating of the metal. The ancient Egyptians had slaves blowing on blow pipes to heat the charcoal to melt the metal. The metal, of course, melts at the same temperature now as it did then. The Egyptians, I think, really saw the personality of the cat. They did distinguish between the physical cat and the spiritual cat. The statues that we see in museums depicting the cat in the sitting position were not intended as animal sculpture, but as sacred objects to house the bodies of the sacred cats. They’re coffins in the shape of cat figures. Probably, there hasn’t been a time since the Egyptians when that beauty has been so exalted. It’s the essence of the creature. The line of the nose, the lines of the ears, the eyes. Something that an awful lot of humans have lost. A sense of their own being. I think that sums up everything I want to say about cats. Oh, and one last thing. I find it very easy to worship a cat. They have characteristics that I think should be respected. Economy of motion. (laughs) Cleanliness. Pride in physical well-being. We could learn a lot from cats. ♪ Meow, meow, meow ♪ ♪ Meow meow meow, meow ♪ ♪ Meow, meow, meow ♪ ♪ Meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪ ♪ Meow ♪

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