Bethlem Museum & Archives are currently exhibiting part of their much-loved Louis Wain (1860 - 1939) collection, including the Kaleidoscope Cats, dubbed 'the Mona Lisa of asylum art' at a talk by Dr David O'Flynn last Saturday.
Adopted and re-ordered by Drs Walter Maclay and Eric Guttman as part of a thesis on the supposed progressive 'deterioration' of patients with schizophrenia, the series of early 20th century cat pictures varies from straight-up cats to more abstract, textile-style patterns.
In theory, Wain - who had been a prolific and commercial 'cat artist' before the breakdown that saw him confined in a number of asylums until his death in 1939 - 'lost' his ability to draw cats as his illness progressed. O'Flynn considers this nonsense, and exactly why formed the convincing thesis of last week's talk.
One of the comments that came out of the ensuing discussion was that some of the cats in the Kaleidoscope collection look electric. Indeed, Wain was fascinated by electricity (new to the 1890s market) and believed that cats' fur built up electricity that pulled them consistently to the north, like magnets. In the image above - placed by Maclay towards the beginning of the 'series' - the charge seems to radiate from the animal's fur.
I was reminded of another 'mad' cat-lover, Christopher Smart (1722 - 1771), confined for a form of religious mania during the eighteenth century. His long poem Jubilate Agno includes a protracted section about the poet's cat Jeoffry (who we can assume was living with him in the asylum). The last lines of this section suggest that Smart, like Wain, had also spotted the build-up of static in his cat's fur:
For his ears are so acute that they sting again. For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention. For by stroking of him I have found out electricity. For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire. For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast. For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements. For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer. For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.
This piece is very much about the 'consideration' of a cat - studying his behaviour and so 'perceiving God's light about him', and this intense examination clearly had a spiritual element to it for Smart. I wonder if the 'deterioration' of the cat pictures into intricate textile-style patterns bespeaks a similar close examination - a mind-focusing exercise, perhaps - in Wain's work.
There will be a second talk on Wain on Saturday 8 December at 2pm, if you're around Beckenham way.