Host: Joan Neuberger, Editor, Not Even Past and Professor, Department of History
Guest: Francesca Consagra, Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Paintings, Blanton Museum of Art
Our first episode of season 3 features the curator of the exhibition In the Company of Cats and Dogs. We consider some of the inherent personalities and temperaments of these animals as well as those imposed or projected by humans onto them. Throughout history, these animals have been viewed and represented as family members, hunters of prey, strays, and as figures and symbols in mythological, religious, political, and moral images.
Guest Francesca Consagra helps us make connections across centuries and genres and underscores our complex relationships to these animals, revealing the many ways in which they say as much about us as we do about them.
Let’s start with a description of what the exhibit is, what’s in it, what its purpose is.
The exhibition has a hundred and fifty five works of art that cover thirty-three centuries —
Yes that is! — of our relationships with these two species, cats and dogs. It’s primarily focused on Western Europe and the United States, but we also have objects from China and from Mexico from the 3rd century. So we do have a wide range of objects, but it’s predominantly European and the majority predates 1900.
What’s the purpose of this show? How do you see the overall purpose?
Well, I hope that this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I feel that it’s the curator’s job to make art accessible and to share the joy of looking and thinking with as many people as possible. I do find that going to art museums and learning how to look nourishes the soul and the intellect. So having a popular subject like this, cats and dogs, is a way of bringing people to the museum who might otherwise never come, in the hopes that they will be moved and inspired to learn more.
Studying these objects can also teach us a lot about the past. So, for example, what can we learn, let’s say, about religion in the past by looking at these paintings that include cats and/or dogs.
Well this is really interesting. When you come to the exhibition, in the first room you’re going to be introduced to a wonderful group of objects from ancient Egypt. And one of them shows the goddess Bastet. She has a cat’s head and woman’s body. It comes from the late period, and that’s around 7th century B.C.E. It’s bronze with gold inlay and she has golden eyes. This is from the San Antonio Museum of Art. And it references an entire culture that revered the cat to the point where, through observation of the cat, they noticed that they were good mothers, they took care of their litters, and they had a lot of litters. So if you were a young Egyptian woman and you wanted to be a good mother and you wanted to have lots of children, you would have a figure of Bastet nearby to worship or evoke these wonderful attributes within you. And there were huge temples devoted to Bastet and near them were cemeteries for cats.
We also have in the exhibition a small, bronze coffin that had a cat skeleton in it, a cat mummy. And sometimes they would even bury their cat mummies with mummified mice and little cups of milk so that their beloved cats would have a good afterlife with lots of mice to eat and milk to drink.
So you come from that period to, let’s say, the medieval Christian period in western Europe and you have a completely different response to the cat. It was probably inspired by this very popular cult of Bastet in Ancient Egypt because if the cat was so revered in a pagan religion then it might not be looked upon as so wonderful in a Christian religion, trying to remove itself from paganism. So that was one of the impetuses. And everything the Egyptians loved about the cats (you know, really fertile, lots of litters, nocturnal) were all the things that the Christians thought—this was an animal that hunted and was highly sexualized, lets say. And so they took that as meaning perhaps this animal could be an agent of the Devil. This wasn’t the only animal who had this laid upon them. There were toads and other creatures who were looked upon as agents of evil.
Can you speak about an individual object that depicts cats as evil?
Yes, there are a couple in the exhibition. One is by the wonderful artist, Bruegel, and it shows a cat and a toad looking at each other in this den of evil, with witches flying and sorcerers sitting, looking at a book of magic, and all these strange hybrid animals with different parts of different animals attached to them. It’s supposed to be this evil den and in there is this cat and toad looking at each other. I did some research to try and find some kind of literary source for the cat and toad looking at each other and I did find one written by a late medieval bishop of France that said in this incredible story, which almost sounds like Monty Python in the way it’s written (or I should say in the way it’s been translated). It said, “Bewareth the cat, it licketh the toad.” And then with the poison tongue it would contaminate the water source for good Christians, who would be sick for as much as six month.
One of the things that we talked about earlier was how there was a time in early European history where portraits of children would often be accompanied by their pets. Why was that? And what does that tell us about that period when the paintings were made?
Well this is really interesting. As I mentioned, the cat is not looked on very well during the middle ages, but then all of the sudden it starts getting into some portraits very slowly. By the time of the Enlightenment, so by the 18th century, you start seeing more and more children especially with their cat. It is likely coming from this break from tradition—so break from the Catholic Church and these concepts of evil. At the same time, we see a rise in this concept of kindness in child rearing, in the work of John Locke. He was a British philosopher at the end of the 17th century. You already see him writing that to create a good citizen, a good adult citizen, it’s important to rear children in a way that they feel empathy and kindness towards others. And one of the ways that Locke suggests doing this is bringing a pet into the house. So when you see a portrait of a child, let’s say of a ten year old, holding a book and then has a cat on her lap, it’s a sign that this child is being well raised. She has a book, which means her parents have taken the time to teach her how to read, but she’s also a kind person who knows how to care for other creatures and people. And that combination of stimulating the intellect and also the heart of a child really comes to the fore in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we’re still a part of that tradition today. Many families feel it important to teach their children not only empathy, but responsibility through the care of a pet.
You worked with a lot of people outside of art history — with historians, psychologists, sociologists — in putting this show together. What did you learn from them? How did that change the way you did your job?
Well what I just mentioned about childhood was inspired by talking to Janet Davis, who is a professor in the American Studies department.
Here at UT?
Here at UT, yes. She is going to be publishing her book on the culture of kindness in the United States and she was very helpful. I owe a lot to Sam Gosling who is a professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He is an anthrozoologist, which means he studies human and animal interactions. This is a new discipline that’s about only two or three decades old and it really is the symptom or a product of our culture’s own interest and devotion to these companion animals, which has risen dramatically (we spend billions of dollars on caring for our pets).
Another thing you do that’s not traditional is include some non-traditional works of art in the show, such as cat videos.
Where do they fit into the overall trajectory of the history of the depiction of animals? And what can they tell us about us, about our own period?
I think what I mentioned earlier about this boom—in fact, one anthrozoologist calls it “petophilia,” this total love and admiration for pets, especially cats and dogs. But also there’s this incredible invention of the Internet. And this is a way, some people feel, that cat owners can share their wonderful, beautiful pets with the world. Someone said it’s sort of like a worldwide dog park for the cat people. But cats are incredibly live and beautiful animals. Hold on, are you a cat person? I could tell. You know how I could tell? Because most of your questions have revolved around cats. There are actually more dog images in the show.
That was actually my next question. What’s the relative weight of cats and dogs in the show?
There is, I would say, about one-third feline and two-thirds canine. And that’s because dogs serve more utilitarian purposes. Not just hunting, but they were depicted as loyal companions long before the cat. So really starting as early as the 13th and 14th centuries you start seeing the companion dogs and you really have to wait until the 18th century to start seeing that with cats. There’s also a whole genre of hunting that evolved from the aristocratic pastime. In fact you had to be an aristocrat to hunt throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and into the Baroque. So these wonderful hunting pictures show these fabulous hounds on the scent, or a wolf (I have an image of that in the show). So dogs appear much earlier and in much more varied ways than cats do.
The literature section of the exhibition is devoted that solely to the cat. And in the morality section of the exhibition there is mostly cat imagery. I found a way of balancing out this situation, which is a cultural situation, by giving the cat the last hoorah of the show. I have three monitors outside of the show [displaying cat videos] because I did feel like the moving images would be distracting in a room with paintings and prints and drawings.
So outside the show you have three video monitors.
Three video monitors and their four very popular cat videos, which are mesmerizing. I find them mesmerizing. Two are from Japan and I have to thank the department of Japanese here at the University of Texas for helping me get privileges to show them. But there’s Maru, a very famous Internet cat who’s charming. And there’s Zen Cat, who’s featured in a twelve-minute video of cats with things put on their heads. Also, I was interested in the quality of the video. Some are higher in resolution than others, but I thought they were visually compelling.
I think Nora the Piano Cat was more about how the cat is adapting to a human activity like playing the piano. And we actually have an 18th century illustration in a book that shows a very famous Parisian harpist who would guide her cat’s harp playing. So if the cat didn’t like it, apparently it would express itself in a certain way and she would change the way she played the harp. And she was so thankful to this cat—and this is a true story—that she gave her entire estate to it and had very famous, important lawyers write up the will. And there’s a picture of her on her deathbed with the cat on her lap and the lawyers are drawing up the will. So you have to come see that, it’s really quite amusing. But in the end her human family won out.
Do people gravitate to particular paintings or objects?
Well, I think they start with the videos. So they’re already in a good mood by the time they get in. It’s also the last thing you see. So you’re usually in a pretty good mood. But I’m hoping that our visitors will also start thinking about how they take care of their own animals, about how their own psychology is influencing their relationship with other species. So that is to me important. There are some big paintings that attract people. There’s a huge one of Otter Hounds on the Scent from the 19th century, which is just incredible. It has these big, smelly, wet dogs in the pursuit of hunting an otter in a stream in Great Britain. There’s also a fabulous large painting by one of the great game painters of the 17th century, Jan Weenix, which attracts a lot of people even though it’s a bit gory because it’s a game picture and that means there’s a lot of dead animals looking at you as you come towards it. I would say some of the Japanese prints are very popular that show cats on the prowl. And there’s a beautiful drawing by Edward Hopper, showing his neighbor’s cat. Actually it was John Dos Passos’ cat, Perkins Youngboy. And so there’s an intimacy there in an artist who really does enjoy the company of a cat and is able to express that through his drawing.