Monday, August 4, 2008

The Blue Wing of Cats

Before I leave the subject of Paris, I thought I'd unravel a series of images connected with something that happened there.

Inspiration comes from unexpected sources sometimes. I was in Paris shortly after the Musee d'Orsay opened and of course I went to see what was in it. I'd been to most of the art museums, at least the larger ones, on previous trips, and although I was past the beginning traveler excess of spending most of my time inside museums - it is a part of my job, and I planned to look at the Orsay collection in detail.

The collection has some of the best of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and that's what I was planning to look at - I think Cezanne was at the top of my list at that time - but the Orsay also has a bunch of what happened right before the Impressionists, including the kind of academic paintings that the Impressionists were intent on not doing. And sure enough, it was one of these, a soft-pornish giant "Venus, La Naissance" (birth of Venus) that caught my eye. It wasn't that I liked it, entirely, but there were some things about it that were so strange that I wound up spending most of my limited time (I had one hour to see the entire collection of hundreds, if not thousands of works, before the museum closed.) staring at one part of this fairly bad painting, before running past dozens of Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Matisse, etc etc.

In this painting, Venus, who is to be oggled at, has just been born out of a scallop shell floating on some formulaic waves. In the air above her hover a batch of cupids. Everything is painted to be as much like a photograph as human skill will allow - it was designed to impress someone with a rather superficial idea of what painting can do - so polish was everything. Venus is "beautiful" but not especially beautiful as a painting. The cupids are another story - they're winged babies, supposedly, but either the painter couldn't help it, or he did have a sense of humor in spite of his academic training , for these babies have the leering lecherous expressions of particularily dirty old men. The effect is... repulsive. It's hard to believe that it is intentional.
No one else seemed to notice this, and I heard a lot of oohs and aahs about the giant canvas & the museum must have realized that it was a sure sell, because they had it printed on a post card.

What drew my eye to the painting were the wings. The cherubs had wings of course, and unlike the rest of the painting, where brushstrokes were so carefully applied that they couldn't be seen, the wings had been painted quickly, and with great skill. This guy knew his wings. The wings were stubby, like the cherubs, and because I have ornithological affectations I couldn't help but wonder what sort of bird he modeled them on. I decided it was a quail. Maybe even one he'd eaten. And THAT was evocative to me. Quail aren't blue - a blue quail would be a primary quail. I knew then and there I'd be painting blue quail wings too.

Years ago I was lurking around in a dark field and stumbled into two things at one time which also made a big impression on me. Quail, when they are jumped from their covey, make an almost explosive sound of many wings whirring at once. So there was that, but at the same time I startled the quail up into flight I ran into an electric fence. The combination of sound and sensation was dramatic, like a heart attack.

So I knew that the subject of MY primary blue quail painting would be an exploding covey, which left the problem of what would be startling them. The answer came from my past.

The first artist whose work impressed me was Audubon. In the second grade I started my own version of The Birds of America. I liked the subject matter, and I liked the concept - it was a simple framework - one painted all of the birds that live in North America and that completed the project. At 15 I was still holding on to a bit of that dream. Cebah has a watercolor done in 1975, of a Little Green Heron, a bird that we call a Shackpoke, the last would-be Audubon. I remembered that Audubon had painted a covey burst of quail, scattered by a hawk attack, with the peculiar look all his work has of living birds killed so the dead birds can be reanimated.

I didn't want another thing with wings. What's worse for birds than a cat? I'd painted plenty of cats, but most of them were blue (why is another story). Still, it was easy to move the cat round the triad to red, do the landscape yellow & have a Primary Painting - "Primary Cat Attack".

(collection of 21C Museum Foundation)

It's typical of a delve into the Omnichronic, which is my catch all word for all the experiences I've had and will have, and all the connections that my work has and will have with the lives of others, that when you pull a thread, several sweaters unravel. Then (see the earlier post "Gladiator") I have to sit up all night knitting a new work to hold it all together. Temporarily.

I took my camera down to the studio and opened the flat file, and my stack of sketchbooks, and looked through for all the cats on hand. Most left long ago, and are hanging on someone's wall somewhere, but I found a few, and here's a selection of those, expecially for the cat people (like Cathy and Katherine).

If the enormous Musee d'Dandylyond ever gets constructed, so that the complete Omnichronic is displayed in all its transcendental glory, then I hope you will visit The Blue Wing, where you may see the gallery of cats in entirety.

Sketch for Primary Cat Attack:

Two Scary Cats:

Black Jaguar:

Pinky and Thomas:


Afterthought: When I reread this post I suddenly remembered two more connections between Paris and cats. The basement of the Louvre has the antiquities, including a lot of Egyptian stuff that Napolean looted. There's a long hall with a row of gigantic black basalt statues of the cat-headed goddess Bast. Walking alone down that dim hall was very unnerving. I felt quite mouse-sized. Watch out for people with cat goddesses.

I got back into Paris on the train late one sat. nite and discovered what I had been warned about - sometimes every hotel is filled by late in the day on wknds. I trudged for miles looking for a vacancy. I finally found a decrepit looking ancient building whose manager looked at me as though I might be a bon bon. (I was young!) He gave me the key and directed me to the 9th floor. The stairs, rotting and barely attached to the wall, were terrifying & it was one of those deals where the lights on the landing come on when you push a button, but turn off in a minute, so there was little time to make it from one landing to the next. When I finally reached the 9th floor, there was no door on the landing. I went back down to the landing below to make sure it was 8, & then back up to see if I was delirious. I felt delirious. After staring at the wall for some time, I realized that what I thought was a cabinet door was actually THE door. I tried my key and it opened. I crawled in through the hole and was in a triangular attic garret, barely big enough to stand up in one corner, with a lumpy cot and an ancient sink. I searched the room for bugs and collapsed on the bed with my clothes on.

I'd barely fallen asleep when I heard a sound above me and woke up. There was a tiny triangular window that I hadn't looked out of. I went to it and looked out on a magical landscape. The tiled roofs of old Paris stretched out before me, angling this way and that under a full moon, and sitting here and there, stalking about from one chimney shadow to the next, lashing their tails, were the inky silhouettes of cats cats cats. Shuddering at the thought of what they hunted, I went back to bed.

(costume design for the Giant's blue cat in The Changeling & the Bear ~ worn by Elodie Andrews)

After-after thought: William reminded me of another strange cat happening, which I would never have believed if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. One night I heard a bunch of caterwauling and went to the window to see what was going on. There was a circle of 8 cats, spaced about 4 ft apart, sitting in the yard, yowling. None of them were our cats, which were nowhere to be seen. They stayed there all night, doing whatever it was that they were doing. I never saw any of them before or after.

And this! I was staying with my sister Sarah, when she was living in a little house out in the country. I couldn't sleep for some reason, and got up before dawn to take a walk and watch the sun rise. When I went outside, I looked back at the house and saw her calico cat come round the corner of the house walking upright on its hind legs. It walked all the way around the house and dissappeared, as though it did that all the time, leaving me to wonder WHAT I'd just seen.


Cathy said...

Awww, Pinky and Thomas! Tillard looks like a love.

Nothing has made me feel my lack of artistic talent so keenly as living with felines. I would give so much to be able to paint or draw them.

I cherish my blue cat, which shares a wall with a bunch of birds. I'll see if I can take a pic to post later.

Dan Dutton said...

I meant to say something in this post about the difficulties of drawing cats - best to do it when they're asleep. They do not care to be dominated by observation, and do not pose for your convenience. That's why the drawing of Thomas, looking out the door with his back to me, was scribbled (in 7 lines) almost instantly on a tiny scap of handy paper with a ball-point pen. I knew my opportunity was limited!

Apifera Farm said...

Lovely...I still haven't captred cats that well, I don't think. I have not done all the Apifera CAts, and i reaaly intend to, or did, or do. Like that Buddhist saying, "One doesn't try to tie their shoe, you just tie it." So if I really intended I guess I would have done it by now.

Excellent draftsman you are. Of course you've seen the many collection of A.Warhol and his 'pussy' drawings.?

Dan Dutton said...

Oh Andy! One of these days I'm going to do a tribute post to him, with the Andy Goat story. I don't know the pussy drawings ~ something to look for!

Cathy said...

Oh, Princess Lucy will pose for HER convenience. She likes to be photographed.

Katherine, you captured Big Tony perfectly, and I was really drawn to your portraits of Gracie.

Please do post the Andy Goat story, Danny. One of my favorites.

Or you can just keep posting about Paris!

Apifera Farm said...

I love Andy. People don't realize what an incredible illustrator he was in his early career in NYC. He's been mimicked so much by certain illustrators. Do you have the tribute cd by Lou Reed and John Cale - very wonderful, wonderful. I can make you one if not. It's basically Andy's life in music, songs by the two.
Geeze, I'm going to put it on now, haven't heard it for awhile.

Dan Dutton said...

And you're right, Andy was ahead of the pack as an illustrator. He started with shoes, I think.

William said...

Your afterthought reminded me of the story you once told about the circular cat ritual you witnessed in your yard many years ago. You should share that story sometime.

Dan Dutton said...

You are SO RIGHT! I'm going to add an after-afterthought!

Apifera Farm said...

Yes, shoes, and he did marvelous shoes...'and the art director said draw 500 more." I'm listening to it right now, and I realize too that this cd might be rather 'haunting' under the circumstances. I have had this cd for so many years, and bought it becasue I love Loue Reed and John Cale. I wasn't even that sure what it was at the time, even though I like Warhol. But it IS HAUNTING. It always broke my heart, not so much about his death, but it captured his tenderness too, his insecurity as well as his ego...There is a documentary on him, I know I saw it and learned a lot. My favorite Andy story is when he was audited [I think the tax man hounded him, as I recall] and he kept meticulous [actually compulsive] reciepts, even of the sod he'd buy at the corner hot dog cart. So he goes into the audit session with boxes of receipts and such, all very orderly. His theory was that artists should be able to deduct everything, since we absorb everything and it comes out in art. I tried that on my very square accountant back in Mpls, as a joke [even though I think there's a point there] and the accountant just stared at me.

OK< I think I know this, but did you work with him? I can't remember .

Dan Dutton said...

No, I never met him. I just studied his stuff real hard. I still crack up at him saying for that dinner he liked to eat turkey breast and mashed potatos, because they looked clean.

Or that he had "social disease" - "I'll go to the opening of anything, even a toilet seat."

And sending someone else to be him on a university tour! & no one noticed. hee!

Apifera Farm said... last story about the calico on his hind legs,brings chills! It's right out of my new novel [ok, the novel is still in my head but it will be written]...very cool...One day a couple weeks ago, I went out to barn to feed, and there were the three donkeys sitting around. But Pino was sitting up like a dog, and I always put him in my drawings/stories like that, but had really never seen him do it before. It was so cool, but sort of creeepy too. What I drew became reality, or did I know in a subconscious way he always did sit like that...I'm sure Phinias walks on two feet. Very cool cat stories.