Katten Kabinet: The Cats that People our Lives
Katten Kabinet occupies an unassuming building tucked away on a hushed, upscale canal near, but worlds away from, the touristic bustle of Rembrandtplein. The entrance of the museum is announced by a lone, small sign in Dutch and an illustration of a black cat with upstretched tail walking away from us, anus proudly facing the viewer. Perhaps an odd welcome sign, but no odder than the small spattering of museum visitors exchanging (rather, avoiding) shifty glances in the lobby. What could possibly have compelled a person (myself included) to dedicate an hour of the day to looking at art entirely focused on cats? And furthermore, how could there possibly be enough worldwide demand for cat art to warrant the creation of a museum designated solely for that purpose? Only a moderate cat enthusiast myself, upon entering Katten Kabinet I determined to find an answer to those questions.
|Eric van den Elsen / Ronald Giphart, Birgit, 2002|
As I ascended the staircase to the main exhibition I was confronted immediately by the first work: a color photograph of a pants-less woman, legs sprawled outward, with a pussycat posed stoically censoring the woman’s homonymous genitalia. The piece has obvious shock value in the blatant sexuality of the woman’s pose, and the inversion of the vulgarly termed and associated “pussy” with the innocence of the nonthreatening cat. However, what most fascinated me about this image, and many others throughout the exhibit, was the prevalent theme of artists exploring the interconnectivity between domestic cats and humans. For those that love cats—really love cats, as one can only assume that the majority of artists represented in, and visitors to this museum do— felines have achieved a human (if not deific) status. Many of the works on display demonstrate the deeply ingrained relationship that artists perceived between people and this furry friend, and, to do so, humanize cats in a manner rarely witnessed in portrayals of other animals. Returning to the example of this photograph, the cat sitting in the woman’s lap has literally become human, or part of one, through its role as placeholder genitalia.
Another instance of the pervasion of cats in human life rested upon a tabletop on the main exhibition floor: a spread of prints of old Harper’s Bazaar covers, each depicting some various domestic scene and inexplicably featuring a cat. I say ‘inexplicably’ to underscore the idea that in each scene there was no Godly reason for the cat to be present; these were not magazines touting tips for cats, nor did any of the covers make mention of the felines depicted. Instead, these early and mid-century relics serve to demonstrate again the lofty status cats possess in human life. The black and white kitten posed precariously on the edge of a 1950’s family dinner reminds the reader that no household is complete without this companion. In another illustration, the fashionable young woman garbed in lace and petticoats reminds us that this season’s ultimate accessory is, and maybe always will be, an equally stylish orange kitty.
|Onbekend, Bastet Kat,|
Amongst the primarily late 19th- and early 20th-century collection of artwork, two glass cases house cat-inspired relics from ancient societies, such as a pre-Columbian swatch of stitched fabric depicting a rudimentary cat, or the impossibly delicate carvings of an Egyptian cat figurine. The inclusion of these works speaks to the long lasting relationship between cats and humans. Intentionally placed or otherwise, a strongly tangible link exists between the ancient figurines and a small Picasso painting of a black cat from the 1900s that sits directly opposite the case. The same impetus that had driven one of the most successful painters of the 20th century to study the enigmatics of cathood had prompted some unnamed BCE Egyptian sculptor to craft these beautiful, tiny objects. The inclusion of these ancient works reminds the museum visitor that our obsession with cats is no recent love affair, but one that spans back centuries. Beneath each of these works lies a desperate attempt to understand— or rather, craft some human-centric understanding of—these animals that assume such an important role in domestic life. Regardless of the quality of the work, the epoch it was made, or the origins of the artist, I found the most interesting and resonant element of Katten Kabinet not to be the cats, but rather the way cats were used by artists to explore our own understanding of, and relationship with, the animals that people our lives.
So, upon exiting Katten Kabinet had I found answers to the questions I had originally posed? Did the works within Katten Kabinet merit the existence of a museum dedicated entirely to cat art? Well, in a sense, yes. I left the museum with new beliefs about the relationship between cats and humans, and feeling largely aligned with the intrigue that had likely inspired many of these artists to create these works.
That said, I’m still more of a dog person.