Hello everyone, Cat Jesus! The fantastic feline artist behind Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest biopic | Art

VSat Jesus, as the staff call him, can be found on a painted mirror in the archives of the Museum of the Mind at Bethlem Hospital. It was created by famed comedic cat cartoonist and Bethlem Psychiatric Hospital patient Louis Wain, whose art is about to be exhibited here. One Christmas, Wain was invited to help with the institutional decorations. He asked if he could paint on mirrors – and the results still survive. In Cat Jesus, a feline Santa Claus holds a white kitten with a sunflower halo around its head while other cats greet the radiant offspring, in front of a Taj Mahal-like building in a fantastical jungle.

Pet star… Louis Wain has published his own annuals for nearly two decades. Photograph: Museum of the Spirit of Bethlem

It really looks like sacred art for a new feline religion. You can also see it in another photo of a white cat, which looks at you and seems to be saying, “I’m happy because everyone loves me.” Wain had previously described, as his contemporary HG Wells put it, “a society of cats.” Born in 1860, he is a star of the golden age of British illustration. Illustrated magazines such as The Illustrated London News were extremely popular and still used drawings, not photographs. Wain drew cats doing human things – playing cricket, having tea, going to the doctor – and the animal-loving public lapped him up.

Yet, as the upcoming biopic produced by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Electric Life of Louis Wain, reports, these popular kitties haven’t given him a happy life. Tragedy and financial ruin have soured the milk. He began to believe that there was something sinister about the electricity and that his sisters were stealing his money. After attacking them, he was declared insane in 1924 and spent the rest of his life in asylums.

We no longer have “asylums”. Bethlem Royal Hospital is now an NHS mental hospital in a large area in Beckenham, on the outskirts of London. Its museum is part of the site with free access. But this hospital was founded in the Middle Ages and, under its old nickname Bedlam, was not only one of the first asylums but the most famous in the world. Hogarth described it as a place of human tragedy and cruelty in his painting The rake in Bedlam, inspiring Goya’s madhouse scenes and, later, Boris Karloff’s film Bedlam.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Electric Life of Louis Wain.
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Electric Life of Louis Wain. Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2021 STUDIOCANAL SAS – CHANNEL QUATRE

This dreaded place in London mythology, founded in 1247, was originally located where Liverpool Street Station is today, then after the Great Fire it moved to Moorfields. In 1815 he moved again to Southwark, where the domed central part of the Victorian Asylum survives as the present Imperial War Museum. Originally it had two long wings leading to heavily barred criminal quarters for women and men. This is where Wain was brought. He remained in Bethlem for five years, then in a hospital near St Albans until his death in 1939. As a patient he continued to draw cats, but not necessarily as we know them.

Wain’s early cat cartoons are skillful and quite funny. But as an art, I much prefer his late work, which was diagnosed as psychotic. Shortly after Wain’s death, a psychiatrist named Walter Maclay found eight of the latter images in an antique store and purchased them. He analyzed them as a sequence in which we can see the collapse of a mind, and they still appear in textbooks as visual symptoms of schizophrenia. Looking at four of the originals in the Bethlem Museum’s permanent collection, it’s easy to see what he meant. The first is a “classic” Louis Wain cat: cute, smiling and drawn with dazzling realism. In the next, a cat made of jagged pulsating red lines with huge dark empty eyes floats in a radiant ether of blue and green. He looks like a psychedelic 1960s version of the Cheshire Cat.

The next one is even wilder. Much like Carroll’s Cheshire Cat leaves only a smile, the mask of a cat face is isolated in the dark, glowing an eerie blue, edged with red, orange, and emerald flames, something in between an ancient Tibetan demon and a fractal pattern. The last cat in the series is even hard to recognize as a cat. Her eyes are buried in a surprisingly rich and complex symmetry, like a fantasy of a Turkish carpet in which a feline face is hidden.

detail of Noël des chats by Louis Wain, ink and gouache on mirror glass, circa 1935.
Psychedelic rather than psychotic… detail from Louis Wain’s Christmas Cats, ink and gouache on mirror glass, circa 1935. Photograph: © Bethlem Museum of the Mind 2017

Maclay’s interest was clinical rather than aesthetic. He used this work to map the degrees of psychosis in the disease he diagnosed the recently deceased Wain with: schizophrenia. It was an abuse of science. As museum director Colin Gale and archivist David Luck explain as we admire these intense moggies, Maclay had no evidence that the drawings formed a series, or in what order they were created. The “first” may have been created last. Wain clearly portrayed some very unusual and even scary cats during his asylum years, but he also drew his funny cats realistic. “I would resist any simplistic connection between Louis Wain’s illness and his creativity,” Gale says.

Still, to me, Wain’s Cats Metamorphosis feels like a liberation. This Victorian-born artist, who made a name for himself by gently poking fun at the human customs of the Imperial era, broke out of the pedantic habits of dominant British art during his hospital years. In the melancholy freedom of his illness, he escapes into delirious visions of divine felines. He became a foreign artist.

While British psychiatrists used art as medical evidence, a German physician, Hans Prinzhorn, paved the way for the reassessment of the work of asylum inmates as art. Jean Dubuffet later inscribed this admiration for such art in the mainstream of modernity with his concept of art brut – “art brut”.

Wain was no modernist, but in the asylum he broke free from the bonds of Victorian drawing. Browsing through some of the works about to be hung in the Bethlem exhibit, the earliest popular depictions of cats doing funny human things strike me as more unbalanced than his later visions: Wells’ praised “cat society” is overcrowded. of cats, brittle in his humor. As an artist, he is much freer when he explores his surreal and hallucinatory side.

Multicolored cats from space… Kaleidoscope Cats VI by Louis Wain.
Strange dream animal… Kaleidoscope Cats VI by Louis Wain. Photograph: Museum of the Spirit of Bethlem

We don’t even know what Wain suffered from. Maclay’s diagnosis of schizophrenia was post facto speculation. As I browsed through a stack of Wain’s artwork, from cheerful cats sledding to cats that are weird patterns of sinister colors, I started to wonder if the key to his mental world is so obvious. that she is ignored: her fascination with cats. For there was something very strange, even repressed, about the sentimental cats he drew in Victorian magazines. When he portrayed them in a more disturbing way, he more openly embraced their place in art history and mythology as weird dream animals.

Wain charmed the world with adorable cats when he started selling his work in the 1880s. “What he communicated was a joy to live with,” Gale says. Yet until then, the cat in art was much less domestic, associated with sex, night, and madness. In the Goya print The sleep of reason produces monsters, a cat is one of the evil creatures that dethrone a man’s reason when he sleeps. When Wain was a child, Edouard Manet shocked Paris with his frank and unglamorous nude Olympia. At the courtesan’s feet, her black cat howls, arches her back and pricks her hair in an image of sexuality and aggression. Likewise, strange cats adorned the posters of the legendary turn-of-the-century Parisian cabaret Le Chat Noir.

But these macabre modern cats are all the great-grandfathers of ancient Egyptian art. Although Egyptian cats can be observed with delicacy and beauty, they are not exactly the cats next door. They are gods. The feline deities of ancient Egypt included Bastet, a cat-headed goddess associated with both sex and motherhood, and the Great Tom Cat, a form taken by the sun god to kill a world-devouring serpent.

Gods of the sun? Maternal goddesses? It makes you think of Wain’s Christmas cat messiah with a sunflower halo. His multicolored cats from space suggest a sublime feline religion. Maybe he’s not just portraying ghoulish dreams of cats in the asylum, but he is crafting his own mythology. Wain’s early work creates a rational feline world where, instead of haunting the Parisian nightlife, cats play cricket and have tea on an English village green. It is the art of a man keeping a lid on his meow demons. Later, in the most psychedelic works of his life in the hospital, he lets the cat out.

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Margarita B. Bittner