CATERWAULING


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‘Caterwauling” Painting by Louis Wain
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Does anyone know what goes on behind the enigmatic, mysterious eyes of the family cat? Are they waiting there simply to be admired, or is there a deeper purpose to their somnolence? Is their frequent habit of clawing your lap while otherwise giving the appearance of restful contemplation a signal of ulterior motives?

There are definitely “cat people” and “dog people”, though there are many who find both an added element to their households. I have one friend who finds room in her heart and in her home for 5 cats and a bulldog. The old fallacy that the species are incompatible is untrue. My father used to laugh at that idea when I sobbed that the dog would cause harm to a new cat. He was proved right when the cat took a hearty swipe at the curious dog’s nose, and let him know that that degree of intimacy was not allowed. Later in life we had several pair who comfortably shared the same bed throughout their lives, much like old married couples. A recent incident on local TV showed a cat attacking and driving away a dog who had assaulted a child. So much for the fallacy that the two species are enemies.

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Born in 1860, artist Louis Wain, obsessed with cats, ‘invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world.’ So said H. G. Wells in 1925 when describing the phenomenon of a cat artist who had become a household name over the previous 40 years. Louis Wain’s cats, dressed as humans in the fashion of the day while having fun; were depicted at restaurants and tea parties, at the Races or at the seaside, celebrating Christmas and birthdays, and disporting themselves at games of tennis, cricket and football. Succeeding generations recognize in them the energetic desire of a society at leisure. Wain’s world was funny, edgy and animated–a whole cat world.

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His working life spans the great age of the postcard and the prolific dissemination of his art in this way made him one of the most prevalent and recognisable artists of the early twentieth century. Between 1900 and 1940, 75 different publishers produced over 1100 of his images in postcard form. This was an era when the inexpensive postcard frequently took the place of a letter, and the humorous cat depictions were in great demand.

His post World War I financial difficulties may have contributed to a rapid decline into schizophrenia as Wain became isolated, impecunious and unmanageable. In 1924, he was certified insane and admitted to Springfield Hospital. Briefly forgotten, he was discovered in this paupers asylum a year later and, following a public appeal involving many artists and writers, and the intervention of the Prime Minister himself who recognized his genius, he was transferred to two or three successively more pleasant hospitals, where he lived on until 1939, painting ceaselessly and recreating a new and ever more colorful cat world, which became more frenzied and colorful as his condition worsened.

the land of the rising sun the motor adventure

His later work reveals his schizophrenic illness: highly colored cats at times become frenzied, sometimes showing anger, while sometimes in the background are curious recreations of his asylum buildings.

cat with house cat over fence

As time went by, Louis Wain’s cats lost their carefree, happy eyes, and became a vehicle to convey his deteriorating sanity. As another, somewhat famous artist said “There are people who love nature even though they are cracked and ill, those people are the painters.” Vincent Van Gogh. But art should be judged merely by its aesthetics and not by conjecturing about the mental condition of the artist. The pleasures of an ice cream cone aren’t enhanced by enquiring about its recipe.

Louis Wains art became pure brilliant design and don’t require an explanation or any need to place them into a familiar world.

louis wain late work 2 louis wain late work 1

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

13 thoughts on “CATERWAULING”

  1. I think I’d title that last image “Kaleidoscope Cat”. It is fascinating to track the development of his work over the years. I’d say I don’t recognize it, and yet it seems so familiar, especially the pair of sad-eyed cats. Pensive.

    I do think some of his postcards have been used by a blogging friend in Michigan who truly is one of the most “crafty” people I’ve known. She does it all, and I think some of this fellows cats may have made it into her work – greeting cards, tags, that sort of thing.

    My aunt has a box of postcards waiting for me the next time I get up to Kansas City. I know there are plenty of flowers and sentimental verses on them. It will be interesting to see if there’s not at least a card or two that utilizes Wain’s work. Even more, I wonder if he ever did a varnishing cat? Probably not — but I’ll bet there’s a house painter or two!

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    1. Yes, the one trying to climb over the fence makes me think Wain wanted to do the same. The last painting would make a wonderful rug. We have Persian rugs throughout and many of the old designs look similar. I sometimes sit and find faces or butterflies in them. Then when I look the next day, they’re gone! My grandmother collected postcards too, however most are of scenery. She was one of those people who didn’t like cats OR dogs. Poor lady she didn’t know what she was missing. Apparently she had a kitten as a child, and her stepmother punished her because the kitten had an accident on her carpet. My grandmother always happily told her younger sister to kick her in the shins because SHE had .No idea what the outcome of that was.

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  2. Great story. The second last picture is something special. When I was little my dad used to tell me a story about three cats going to the beach and what happened when they arrived and discovered they’d forgotten to bring the can-opener 🙂 It was my favourite. Maybe he was influenced by Louis Wain.

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    1. I’ll bet there was a cat somewhere who carried a can-opener! His art was so unique even for people who don’t like cats. The cats we have had each had interesting personalities. I was having a dinner party one rainy night when our German Shepherd carried a very wet and muddy kitten in in her mouth. ONe of the guests helped me as we gave it a bath in the sink over a pile of dirty dishes. The kitten ran away shortly after. I can’t imagine why.

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  3. I had not heard of Louis Wain. It’s a fascinating story, though a sad one.

    We have a new kitten, endlessly entertaining but extremely fond of the lap clawing trick.

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  4. All our cats who took residence with us through the years, did the trick too! One friend’s cat was especially fearsome, he would lie in your lap quietly relaxed, and suddenly take a bit bite out of your hand! Not a nice kitty. But they certainly are adorable when in their kitten stage. One of ours waited until a friend who was allergic came to visit, and then race around the room performing. She would sneeze and cough until I finally took pity and put him away when she came by.

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  5. It is sad that Louis Wain suffered so. One has to wonder whether his art was because of his suffering, or despite it.

    Cats round our way, particularly at night against a full moon, are not as socially harmonious as those Mr Wain depicts sitting happily together on a wall.

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  6. I found Louis Wain to be fascinating on two points: all his family were artistically inclined, apparently many of the churches and cathedrals throughout England have some demonstration of his mother’s design ability, and many Turkish-style carpets were of her design.

    Wain was quite political, and didn’t hesitate to put his cats on his side of the spectrum he espoused. Many of his pictures took a lot of study for someone unfamiliar with what was going on politically.

    The whole family loved cats, which showed he painted what he knew so well, and it does show clearly the progression of his illness.

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    1. You have interested me in the political inflluences on Wain’s art. All I found on the net was this: http://vulgararmy.com/post/5262714207/socialism-octopus-by-louis-wain-circa-1902

      It is not clear from this what his political leanings were, but I note that his admirers were the socialist HG Wells and the first socialist Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald.

      It what way did his politics bear upon Wain’s paintings, particularly the later ones?

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  7. Wain put out a series of Annual magazines from 1901-1920 with little or no editorial control. Though he certainly associated with socialists, i.e Wells, MacDonald, his cartoon views seem to be all over the place. He did some cartoons which seemed sympathetic to Ireland at that time. I know Wells at one time belonged to the Fabian Society, if Wain was also a sympathizer I don’t know.

    From his letters to magazines and newspapers his views show him to be a capitalist, loyalist, and colonialist and he believed in Free Trade. I checked out your link and it was much like a lot of his cartoons in the Annuals.

    His later paintings showed cats enjoying gentle pursuits frequently showing flowers and a beautiful building in the background. he began using more facial expressions as he went along, and the eyes began to be more agitated until the cat was pure design. However, I did not see anything you could consider political at the end.

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    1. I’m sorry I cannot help you. The last image was titled “Early Greek”, but the one above it was part of a larger image which apparently was unnamed. He often did not name his sketches. They are lovely though aren’t they? They would make up nicely as a rug design. Thanks for your inquiry Kiki.

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