[Kaleidoscope cat.]c.1930s Stock Code: 125094
NotesA rare, superbly coloured "kaleidoscope" cat by the beloved "asylum artist" Louis Wain, presumed to have been created during his later years at Napsbury Asylum when his fluctuating psychological state was profoundly transforming his art. In this case, the image retains the realistic form of a mischievous cat but with the psychotic gleam and unnaturally bright colouring typical of the artist's more abstracted work, straddling the divide between the two facets of Wain's artistry; a "flashback" or precursor of an altered state.
Despite his eventual fame as "the man who drew cats", Wain (1860-1939) regarded himself as a "dog artist" at the start of his career, providing numerous spreads for journals such as the Illustrated London News reporting on kennel club and dog shows. Cats were, however, his first love, and he obsessively illustrated them for the rest of his life. Persuaded by his ailing wife Emily, Wain volunteered sketches of their black and white kitten, Peter, to the ILN, which were received positively. These early drawings soon gave way to the "definitive Louis Wain cat": instantly recognisable anthropomorphic felines in evening dress, sporting monocles and cigars, or playing cricket. His illustration, "The Kitten's Christmas Party", featuring more than 150 cats, appeared in the Christmas issue of the ILN in 1886 to great acclaim. When the time came to commission an artist to capture the likenesses of the bloodhound duo, Barnaby and Burgho, assigned to the Jack the Ripper case after the "Double Event", Wain was the obvious choice. His full-page spread was printed in the ILN on 20 October 1888 and captured Sir Charles Warren trialling the pair in Hyde Park in preparation for their use at Ripper crime scenes.
A household name and the nation's favourite animal illustrator, Wain found himself struggling with mental illness during the early 1920s, his somewhat erratic tendencies and unsteady moods worsening until he "developed a persecution complex and became suspicious of his sisters, finally attacking one. This led to him being certified insane on 16 June 1924 and taken to the paupers' ward of Springfield Hospital, Tooting (the Middlesex County Asylum). Here he remained for a year until the journalist and bookshop owner Dan Rider found him and publicized his plight. A fund was started and even the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, took a personal interest in him which resulted in Wain being transferred to Bethlem Hospital (now the Imperial War Museum) At Bethlem he was given his own room and supplied with art materials with the result that an exhibition of his work was held in London at the Twenty One Gallery in October/November 1925" (ODNB). The gallery, owned by adventurous art dealer and patron Molly Bernhard-Smith, was known for championing avant-garde artists such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and William Nicholson, as well as Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland, both of whom had their first solo shows at Twenty-One.
Without abandoning the central idea of the cat, Wain began to produce more discordant works which experimented with geometric patterns, distortions of form, and vivid colours, often creating almost completely abstracted drawings. Many of these drawings were gifted to his warders and the specialists who took care of him, such as Noel Gordon Harris, a consultant at Springfield whose two Wain drawings were presented to the Wellcome Library in 1985. Art critic Geoff Cox described these so-called "psychotic cats" as being "riotous and grinning or sublimely poised and inscrutable, their many-hued bright saucer eyes gaze from vistas of tangled foliage and pink-jeweled mountains. When shut indoors, they are set against intricate curlicues of wallpaper. On occasion, they fracture, shimmering into their ornate backgrounds. These are otherworld cats; always strange, joyous, unknowable and troubling" (Brottman). After 15 years spent in psychiatric asylums Wain died, aged 78, in July 1939, leaving behind an incredibly varied body of work.
The controversy and debate surrounding Wain's diagnosis and its effect on his creative output has ensured that Wain's art is inextricably intertwined with the history of psychiatry. Early retrospective diagnoses pointed to him as a schizophrenic whose art correlated directly with his progressive mental deterioration. This thesis stemmed partly from judgments made by Wain's psychiatrist, Dr Walter Maclay, who believed that Wain's art intensified and fractured as his thoughts became disordered. "In a letter dated 31 July 1939 just a few weeks after Wain's death, Maclay wrote: 'I found some of Louis Wain's pictures in a little shop at Camden Hill and they showed such contrasting styles that I feel that some were done before his illness and some afterwards. I know something of his history and condition while in Bethlem ' Maclay arranged the eight works in an order which suggested to him a clinical progression but with no evidence of the order of their production" (Dale, p. 126). Maclay's theory was later "confirmed" in a book called Psychotic Art, published during the 1960s (Waller, pp. 27-8), the decade in which Wain was "rediscovered" and his abstracted work "appropriated by two main groups of people: cat lovers and those interested in 'outsider art', particularly the art of schizophrenics" (Brottman).
Despite certain disclaimers, modern medical and psychiatric textbooks have often supported this supposed development from conventional to psychedelic, surmising that Wain developed schizophrenia through the parasite Toxoplasma gondii (found in cats' faeces) and reproducing Wain's work in the same "progressive" order constructed by Maclay (Oxford Handbook of Clinical Specialities). More recent analysis has, however, challenged this rather neat theory as establishing a false chronology to Wain's work - predominately because so few can be dated with certainty - with no substantial evidence. As well as pointing out that Wain also continued to produce - with remarkable draughtsmanship skill - more traditional and naturalistic pieces during his later years, including Italianate landscapes and picturesque cottages, medical experts have argued that his symptoms are more fitting to other illnesses such as Asperger's Syndrome and Visual agnosia. They and others cite the more rational influences of his French mother, Felicia Marie Boiteux, who designed carpets and fabrics, and his interest in Grecian style, on his intricately patterned backgrounds.
Whatever the exact truth of Wain's condition, and whatever the nature of its influence - chronological or otherwise - on his art, it was powerful enough to allow him access to a unique way of seeing. Rather than a manifestation of his mental deterioration, his psychosis clearly stimulated his creative visions, whether in the production of his composed, anthropomorphised cats or their fragmented, fantastically distorted alternatives.
An exceptional example of one of Wain's more arresting "kaleidoscope" cats by the era's foremost animal illustrator.
Original gouache watercolour on paper (188 x 128 mm). Glazed and framed.
Stab holes visible at top edge of sheet, else in fine condition, the colours bright and entirely unfaded.
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