Desmond Morris’ book “Cats in Art”.

A thematic walk through the history of world art to discover the relationships that man had with this animal and how and when he depicted it in his artistic creation. Johan & Levi re-releases Cats in art, a classic by one of the most famous characters in the world of zoology and ethology, the Englishman, also to the general public Desmond Morris.
What’s new? The cover, specially created by Paolo Ventura, shows a large European cat with the classic brown and black striped fur and white bib, gigantic, in front of the depressing buildings of a sad city on the outskirts. The cat’s green eyes look like two lighthouses in the general gray.

The book by Desmond Morris

The well-known volume is an exciting ride in the representation of the cat in art. A special animal that never became native. King of our homes, sometimes absolute monarch, he only reveals himself when he feels like it, he purrs, licks us, rubs against our legs, but he can stay hidden for hours in the darkness of a closet or a box. Living with a cat is not an easy thing, it requires respect and commitment from the host. Even when she is a stray, the cat always maintains her dignity.
Many artists have depicted him over the centuries, some naturalistic, others playful. Interpreting his vices and virtues. Desmond Morris, now 95 years old, writes in the introduction to the volume: “Before the cat became a pet, it did not play an important role in human life in prehistoric times. This clever and stealthy animal may not have had many opportunities to come into contact with our ancestors when they still lived in hunter-gatherer tribes. For this reason, his images are very rare in Paleolithic wall art or later cave paintings.“. Then things change for the cat, which was sacred to the Egyptians, highly valued by the Greeks, loved in the East, frowned upon in the Christian Middle Ages and therefore represented throughout the centuries until the 20th century in which the small animal was the subject a lot of work.

Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline with Cat, 1964, oil on canvas

Cats after Desmond Morris

Morris tells a mysterious story about the supposed patron saint of cats, an attribution error that arises precisely from the depiction of the animal: “The figure credited with defeating the mice was Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, who lived between 626 and 659 AD and was the daughter of the monastery’s founder. Gertrude was appointed abbess after her mother’s death and was later identified as a “protector against rat invasions.” Centuries later, she became unfairly known as the patron saint of cats and was adopted by cat lovers as their special saint. The error arose in 1981 when a 1503 painting depicting a young girl next to a white cat was published in a book with the misleading headline that Saint Gertrude of Nivelles was the “patron saint of cats.”“. When it was assumed that the girl in the painting was Gertrude, the cult around her quickly grew and hundreds of modern pictures were created showing her with a cat in her arms. In reality, the girl in the painting is not a nun at all: the scroll above says: “I am here, don’t forget me,” while the figure of a young man can be seen on the back of the table. The painting is signed “AD” as if it were a work of art Albrecht Dürerwhile instead it belongs to an unknown contemporary of his who wanted to impersonate him“.
The volume is enriched by many illustrations and Morris’s fascinating essay offers a pleasant re-reading of the history of world art by our gentle mustachioed friend.

Angela Madesani

Desmond Morris, Cats in Art
Johan & Levi, Monza 2023
Page 224, €28.00
ISBN 978-88-6010-345-1

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