October 24, 2019
(++++) FUN WITH FELINITY
A History of Art in 21 Cats. By Nia Gould. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Texts from Mittens: The Friends and Family Edition. By Angie Bailey. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Sorry I Barfed on Your Bed Again (and More Heartwarming Letters from Kitty). By Jeremy Greenberg. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
There is nothing particularly unusual about cats in art. Ancient Egyptians revered cats and often portrayed them, and in more-modern times, cats have featured in paintings by Abraham Teniers in the 17th century (“Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats”), Renoir in the 19th (“Child with Cat”), and Picasso in the 20th (“Cat Devouring a Bird”); there is even a particularly devilish-looking feline in Hieronymous Bosch’s “Temptation of St. Anthony” (1501). However, using cats as artistic tour guides is unusual, and Nia Gould has done a wonderful job with the concept in A History of Art in 21 Cats. The book is exactly what its title says: a journey through the ages (starting, unsurprisingly, with ancient Egypt), using portrayals of cats to explain different artistic movements and the work of various specific artists. Gould highlights elements that characterize each artistic period or artist: the Egyptian use of the elaborate Eye of Horus and palette of six colors (red, green, blue, yellow, black, and white, each with a symbolic meaning); the inclusion of the halo (previously associated with paganism) in Byzantine art, and that time period’s stylization of faces; the use of flowers to convey messages in Renaissance art; and much more. Gould sprinkles the book with relevant quotations, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” And throughout A History of Art in 21 Cats, she uses cats as themes, showing how one could have looked if painted in elaborate, exuberant Rococo style or with the spots of pure colors characteristic of Pointillism – a style that elicited a wonderful comment from one of its famed practitioners, Georges Seurat: “The inability of some critics to connect the dots doesn’t make Pointillism pointless.” Some of the styles and eras of art will be familiar to readers, but many likely will not be: Symbolism and Cubism are comparatively well-known outside art circles, for example, but Fauvism, which dates to roughly the same time period (early 20th century), is much less so. Gould does an excellent job of using stylized cats to show very clearly how various forms of art differ from each other: a nonsensical Dadaist cat clearly displays the anarchic impulse of that movement while also contrasting strongly with a cat drawn using the horizontal and vertical lines and primary colors favored by the De Stijl approach. Art Deco, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and more – all are here, and all feature cats whose body parts (faces, ears, tails, whiskers, etc.) are used to illustrate each form of art that Gould discusses. The book is really very clever: the pages on Minimalism are almost entirely white, with just a touch of black used to show cat parts impersonally (triangles for ears, for example) – while the discussion of Graffiti looks at the underlying philosophy of street art and explains that the name comes from an Italian word meaning “scratched,” since practitioners originally scratched into walls instead of painting on them. At the back of A History of Art in 21 Cats is a time line that gives the dates of the various art movements discussed and some names of important artists who practiced each style – a forthright invitation to explore art history further, presumably in non-feline ways.
There is nothing particularly artistic about Angie Bailey’s Texts from Mittens, but the concept is certainly amusing, if rather one-dimensionally so. Here we have a cat possessing modern (and scarcely artsy) characteristics, specifically those with which it is endowed by Internet users who apparently find cats irresistible. Bailey has a Web site that is filled with words, not the kitty videos that see to proliferate every time an Internet user does just about anything. Bailey’s idea, though, is that these words are by cats, and specifically by Mittens, a curmudgeonly feline surrounded by various sometimes indulgent, sometimes irritating, generally feckless human beings – basically, Mittens’ friends and family. Hence Texts from Mittens: The Friends and Family Edition. Actually, Mittens interacts via text – on a cell phone; what else? – not only with humans such as Mom (who could laughably be called Mittens’ owner if one could ever truly own a cat), treat-giving and indulgent Grandma, and usually tipsy neighbor Drunk Patty, but also with other cats that presumably have their own cell phones and data plans (Mittens is on the Furizon network). The comedic fodder here involves imagining what Mittens and his friends and family might text if they could – and while some of the resulting material is funny enough in a standup-comedian kind of way, the concept as a whole is pretty much a matter of the same jokes told and re-told. This does not mean they aren’t funny – some of them are – but in book form, they tend to recur a bit too often. The absurdities of “autocorrect” are always fodder for laughter, for example, but there are a few too many here. Mittens’ expressions of strained tolerance for Mom’s dog, Earl, a simple-minded squirrel chaser, are also fun, but they pale after a while through sheer repetition. Actually, the funniest texting tends to involve Drunk Patty, who appears to be goodhearted and is certainly spelling-challenged (whether or not she has indulged a bit too much). One such exchange, for example, goes: “‘Hey Drunk Patty.’ ‘Mittyyy! Hold on! I’m clippping my tooenails!’ ‘I could have lived without knowing that.’” Another goes, in part: “‘I havvve a surprise 4 u! I went too the store and have treeets for BOTH OF US!’ ‘Roger that. Come over.’ ‘I’ll bring the bowels. BOWLS! Autocorrect!’ ‘I should hope so.’” A little of this goes a long way. Even less of Mittens’ communication with other characters goes an even longer way. True, some individual texts are very amusing, such as the one in which Mittens writes a poem for his ever-patient and rather sweet girlfriend, Fiona: “‘I love you Fiona, I’m glad we’re sweethearts. I’d be your baby daddy if I still had my parts.’” Or the comment Mittens makes after learning that Fiona is older than he is: “‘But I’m a BOY TOY. I need to go under the bed and process this for an undetermined amount of time.’” There is just enough cat-ness in these back-and-forths to make Texts from Mittens: The Friends and Family Edition pleasing now and then, but not quite enough to make this (+++) book fun from cover to cover – or, heaven forbid, on any potential (but quite unlikely) re-reading. Like real-world texts in general, whether written by humans or cats or warthogs or pretty much anyone or anything else, Mittens’ texts are better in small doses and forgettable in larger ones.
Ah, but what if cats had a long-enough attention span to go beyond texting and actually write letters? And what if humans had a long-enough attention span to read the letters? Well, both those things are highly unlikely (for an explanation of what a “letter” is in this context, people accustomed only to texting are advised to use a search engine). Jeremy Greenberg has repeatedly channeled the events that would ensue if the unlikely combination of letter-writing felines and letter-reading humans should ever come to pass. His latest (+++) gift-book-size production of this type is more of what he offered in Sorry I Pooped in Your Shoe and Sorry I Slept on Your Face, which is to say it’s about cats saying they are sorry about things that they are not sorry about at all. The cat photos are, of course, a big part of all this. A cat named Ovid lies on his back with eyes closed for the “Dear Grieving Human” letter that explains why Ovid cannot go to the vet: “I’ve unexpectedly died. …[But] I’ve got nine lives and spending one getting out of going to the vet is a worthy sacrifice.” A cat named Lugar is photographed standing on his back legs, and looking surprised, for the “Dear Intrepid Kitchen Explorer” letter, which explains that the upright posture marks Lugar as “Catsquatch,” and “now that you’ve seen me, human, I will unfortunately have to kill you. Or you can get me a yummy treat and we’ll call it even.” There is an extreme closeup of the face of clearly unapologetic Tasha with the “Dear Spray-n-washer” letter, which begins, “I am very sorry that yet again I’ve hacked up a skinless sausage of bile, kibble, and crabgrass onto your satin sheets.” And there is just-awakened Coconut emerging from beneath a sweater for the “Dear Mrs. Forgetful” letter: “How the hell would I know where your sweater is? …[S]omething that feels exactly like a sweater landed on me and woke me at the same time your short-term memory issues forced you to seek the aid of a cat in locating a piece of clothing. Ugh. You don’t seem very bright.” Well, perhaps humans in general do not seem particularly bright to felines, but cats put up with hairless apes as a source of food, comfort and playthings – all of which make their appearance in this for-cat-lovers-only little book.