Spot the Cat

When the world closed down around them, museums began to embrace technology, producing virtual exhibitions that people could visit from the comfort of their homes. Teaming up with museums all over the world is UMA – Universal Museum of Art, an online platform that uses virtual reality to show exhibitions made by specialists at different establishments. In collaboration with RMN-Grand Palais, UMA has designed an exhibition in a virtual eighteenth-century mansion about one of the internet’s favourite subjects: cats.

Cats in Art History combines 75 works of art to demonstrate the appearance of cats from antiquity to our times. There are cats hidden in all of the paintings, whether they are big, small, cuddly, playful, tigers or kittens. They appear in all sorts of scenes, often where they are least expected. Cats have often been associated with extraordinary power, for example, fictional wicked witches usually have a cat. In Ancient Egypt, felines were worshipped as a god, however, in other religions, a cat may be likened to the devil. Cats in religious art usually hold significant meaning, for example, treason or bad luck. Since they are independent creatures, some cultures have deemed them untrustworthy.

Of course, not every painting containing a cat has an obscure or negative meaning. Cats were companions of many artists who isolated themselves in their studios. Cats were and still are cuddly companions of both children and adults. Whatever the artists’ intentions, cats can add a bit of fun to art, particularly when they are not spotted straight away.

Here are a few examples of the paintings in the UMA exhibition. Look out for the cats.

Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading (c.1520)

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Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading

This is a tapestry from a series called La Vie Seigneuriale (The Nobleman’s way of life) that was woven in France during the early 16th century. The figures, who are dressed in Italian fashions that had become popular in France, are thought to be a Lord and Lady going about their daily activities. The Lady’s activity appears to be spinning wool.

The tapestry’s background, a typical design from the 15th and 16th century, is known as the millefleurs (Thousand Flowers) style. It features a pattern of flowers and leaves with the occasional bird. This may have been inspired by an old tradition of scattering cut flowers on the ground on special occasions. This style was later adopted by William Morris (1834-96) and is still used by Morris & Co. today.

lw1290_the_lecture_6Spot the Cat: The tiny cat almost goes unnoticed between the plants in the background of the medieval-style tapestry. He is playing with a thread from the Lady’s spindle, which hangs by her feet. During the Middle Ages, cats were a symbol of femininity, which may be one reason for its inclusion in the tapestry. Its behaviour, however, suggests an alternative meaning of slyness and cunning. This was a trait assigned to cats in many medieval bestiaries.

The cat is not the only animal in the tapestry. On the Lady’s lap is a tiny dog, which peers down to see what the cat is doing. Despite its small stature, it is as though the dog is guarding his mistress and keeping an eye on anything that could cause her harm. The actions of both cat and dog, however, go unnoticed by the couple in the tapestry. It is almost as though they have been frozen in time in a static tapestry, whereas the cat and dog look as though they could move at any moment, thus adding a little humour and cheerfulness to the scene.

The Wedding Feast at Cana – Paolo Veronese (1528-88)

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The Wedding Feast at Cana – Veronese

Paolo Caliari, also known as Paolo Veronese, was an Italian Renaissance painter based in Venice. He is remembered for his large history paintings of mythological and religious stories, of which The Wedding Feast at Cana is one. Painted in the Mannerist style, the artwork was commissioned by the Black Monks of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1562 for their new refectory. Veronese was instructed to paint “the history of the banquet of Christ’s miracle at Cana, in Galilee, creating the number of [human] figures that can be fully accommodated”.

The Wedding Feast at Cana depicts the New Testament story of the wedding Jesus, his mother and his disciples attended in the Gospel of John 2:1-11. It is also the scene of Jesus’ first miracle. At the wedding party, the host ran out of wine to serve the guests but Jesus told him to fill the containers with water. Miraculously, the water became wine.

Veronese positioned Jesus at the centre of one of the tables, looking out of the painting at the viewer. Either side of him is his mother and disciples, seated in a similar way to paintings of the Last Supper. Yet, Jesus’ party is relatively small in comparison to the number of people at the wedding feast – 123 people in total. Whilst Jesus is, arguably, the most important figure in the painting, Veronese included several famous faces amongst the guests. These include Eleanor of Austria (1498-1558), Francis I of France (1494-1547), Mary I of England (1516-58), Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå Gallerix.ruSpot the Cat: The cat is in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting where it is caught mid-movement, sharpening its claws on a silver amphora. The cat is indifferent to the party and is more concerned with its own comfort. It is not, however, the only animal in the painting. Dotted around the scene are dogs of various sizes and breeds. Only one dog looks in the direction of the cat, but he may be too engrossed in the servant pouring wine into the amphora rather than the cat nearby. One tiny dog can be seen walking on one of the tables.

In religious paintings, cats are usually a reference to the devil or sin. Whilst Satan does not play a part in this story, the amphora the cat is playing with is decorated with an image of a Satyr, a symbol of drunkenness and infidelity. Yet, when cats and dogs both feature in a religious painting, there is often an alternative meaning. Dogs are sometimes used to represent Jesus’ disciples, and that is likely the case in The Wedding Feast at Cana. The cat, however, represents one particular disciple, Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus. Dogs are seen as loyal, friendly creatures, hence the connection to the eleven disciples. In this instance, the cat represents treason and disloyalty.

Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano (1492-1546)

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Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano

Giulio Pippi, better known as Giulio Romano, was a painter, architect and decorator of the Mannerist style. Born in Rome, hence his name, Romano was a student of Raphael (1483-1520) and was the only Renaissance artist to get a mention in a Shakespearean play. “That rare Italian master, Julio Romano.” (The Winter’s Tale, Act V, Scene II)

The tapestry is based on a cartoon produced by Romano for a set of twenty-two panels depicting the heroic deeds and triumph of Scipio Africanus (236-183 BC). “Scipio the Great”, as he is sometimes known, was the son of the leader of the Romans in the Second Punic War, also known as the War Against Hannibal. This particular scene, which is based on Livy’s (64 BC-AD 12) account in his book History of Rome, took place at Tessin or Ticinus on the bank of the River Ticino in northern Italy. Although the Roman’s eventually beat the Carthaginian Army, led by Hannibal (247-183 BC), this battle scene shows the Romans on the losing side. The Carthaginian’s attacked on horseback, giving the Romans neither time nor space to throw their javelins. If 18-year-old Scipio Africanus had not been on the field to rescue him, his father would not have survived the battle.

04-22_12-533602Spot the Cat: The cat does not appear in the scene of the battle but rather on the edge of the frieze. The frame is decorated with flowers, fruit, birds, dancing children and a single cat. All these images are a complete contrast to the bloody battle. They represent what the men will receive at the end of the war: peace. The images are also symbols of hope, courage and freedom, thus the cat is supporting the Roman warriors. Unfortunately, the cat is looking away from the scene, perhaps indicating the Romans’ defeat, and has its eyes on something it finds far more interesting: a small rodent.

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders (1579-1657)

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Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables is typical of the paintings by Frans Snyders or Snijders, who was one of the leading artists in Antwerp at the turn on the 17th century, alongside Rubens (1577-1640) and Van Dyck (1599-1641). Snyders initially devoted himself to painting flowers, fruit and still life but later began to focus on animals, making him one of the earliest animaliers. Arguably, his earliest works feature animals since his market scenes often included dead animals in the stages before they were prepared as food. Snyders also included a few live animals as a contrast between animate and inanimate objects.

Some art critics have interpreted Snyder’s paintings as a propagandistic message in favour of the Spanish who ruled over Flanders at the time. Antwerp was a wealthy area full of luxuries that were supposedly supplied by the Spanish, therefore, suggesting they were superior to the Protestant Flemish government. On the other hand, apart from being one of the Antwerpen artists who assisted Rubens in a large commission for decorations for the hunting pavilion Torre de la Parada of Philip IV of Spain (1605-65), Snyders appeared not to have any other dealings with Spain.

04-10_95-014361Spot the Cat: There is more than one cat in this painting: one adult and three kittens. Standing on its back paws, the adult cat has decided to help herself to the peacock on the left side of the paintings. Whilst she drags the bird off the table by its neck, her kittens wait by a basket for their meal. One of the kittens is attempting to follow in his mother’s footsteps, pouncing on a small bird that has fallen onto the floor.

The actions of the cat in this painting could be interpreted as a mother looking after her young, however, the inclusion of a small dog asleep on the right side of the painting suggests otherwise. Some infer the dog belongs to the owner of the market stall and has been instructed not to touch the game while his master is away. Being obedient, the dog curled up into a ball and fell asleep, thus not giving in to temptation. The cat, on the other hand, has been tantalised by the peacocks, pheasants, swans and quails. She is either unaware that touching the game is forbidden, or she does not care.

The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

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The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet

Subtitled A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, this painting is a visual summary of French painter Gustave Courbet’s career as a Realist painter. Courbet and his associates rejected the Romanticism style of the previous century, which was still taught in art schools, and only painted what they could see. Courbet challenged convention by painting unidealised scenes on a scale that was traditionally reserved for religious or historical subjects. His themes included peasants, landscapes, hunting scenes and nudes.

Courbet depicted himself painting a landscape in the centre of The Painter’s Studio, which is being admired by a young boy. The landscape painting is of the Loue River Valley where Courbet grew up. Directly behind him, as though trying to get his attention, is a barely concealed nude woman. She represents Academic art, which Courbet pointedly ignores.

The left side of the painting represents “the other world of trivial life, the people, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, the people who live off death”, i.e. the people of everyday life in France. People depicted include a Jewish man and Irishwoman who Coubert met on a trip to London in 1848, a priest, a gravedigger, a merchant and other people of similar professions. Interestingly, the man with the two hunting dogs is not a person living in poverty but rather an allegory for French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-73), who Courbet detested, depicting him as a criminal for, as Courbet believed, illegally owning France. Needless to say, Courbet’s political views often got him in trouble.

Also on the left is a mannequin that has been contorted to resemble the crucified Christ. Religious scenes were a topic belonging to the Academic art styles that Coubert rejected. Art critics have interpreted the figure not only as death but the death of the Royal Academy of Art in France.

The right side of the painting depicts Parisian elites and friends of the artist. Most of the people either inspired Courbet or played a part in the development of his career. Figures include the art critics Champfleury (1821-89) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), and Courbet’s patron Alfred Bruyas (1821-77).

bigSpot the Cat: A white angora cat is at the foot of the artist in the centre of the painting where it is playing with a small insect. Being in the centre, it is neither associated with the figures on the left nor the right. Instead, it represents individuality. The cat is one of the few living entities in the painting that is not observing the artist at his work. The carelessness of the cat’s play suggests it does what it wants and does not conform to rules, just like Courbet painted what he wanted and did not restrict himself to the constraints of Academic art. The cat represents neither good nor evil but rather the taste of freedom.

Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain (1603-48)

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Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain

The Le Nain brothers, Antoine (1600-48), Louis and Mathieu (1607-77) were genre painters and portraitists active in 17th century France. The eldest was a member of the Paris painters’ guild and allowed his siblings to train under him for free. This painting, Peasant Family in an Interior, was produced by the middle brother Louis and is the largest of the three brothers’ “peasant” paintings.

Seated around a table close to the fire are eight members of a peasant family. Half of them look out of the painting as though interrupted by the presence of the viewer; four of the children, however, are engrossed in their activities. In the centre, one boy is playing a tune on a pipe, whilst two children are warming themselves by the fire. One girl stands behind her mother’s chair, and the fifth child, whose attention is on the viewer, is sitting barefoot on the floor.

Louis Le Nain’s main intention was to offer a glimpse into the reality of the life of a peasant family. His ability to handle light in a painting emphasises the dullness of the interior, lit only by the fire and window, which lies somewhere to the right of the painting. The family wear clothes stained with dirt and the children have no shoes, indicating their poor financial situation. Nonetheless, Le Nain is not mocking the family for their way of life, nor is he trying to shock the people of Paris with his portrayal of the lower class. Instead, the family appear content with what they have, which would resonate with the pious and moral teachings of the Catholic church at the time. The size of the canvas, which was usually reserved for religious paintings, makes the family appear important, almost as though the artist is suggesting their way of life is something to which one should aspire.

louvre-famille-paysans-dans-interieurSpot the Cat: The cat lies behind a pot on the floor in the centre of the paintings. Cats were important to peasant and farming families because they were good at catching mice and other vermin. A cat, however, cannot be trained like the dog who sits on the right side of the painting, and will only work when it feels like it, usually putting its own interests first. In this instance, the cat has decided it would much rather keep warm by the pot, which was likely filled with some sort of soup or broth. The cat also keeps a wary gaze on the dog who does not quite seem to fit in with the family, suggesting he may be a new addition to the household.

The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon (1609-96)

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The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon

Louise Moïllon was a French Baroque painter who, despite being a woman, became one of the best still-life painters of her time. Many of her paintings were purchased by French royalty as well as Charles I of England (1600-49). Known for her use of Trompe l’oeil, Moïllon’s paintings are recognised by the texture of fruit on a dark background, as is the case with The Fruit and Vegetable Seller.

In this painting, a wealthy-looking woman is purchasing fruit from a tired-looking woman, struggling under the weight of a basket of peaches. Moïllon was one of the first artists to combine figures and still-life in one painting and it is interesting to observe how she distinguished between two classes of people. The richer woman is identified by her curled hairstyle and the lace on her dress. The working-class woman’s clothing is less elaborate and her head is covered by a scarf.

ob_ff6121_03-013376Spot the Cat: The cat is resting on the table on the right-hand side of the painting. Initially, the cat does not appear to have a significant meaning, however, some critics believe Moïllon added it as a comical feature. The cat’s facial expression suggests he is unenthusiastic about his surroundings. Unlike the cat in Frans Snyder’s Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables who is helping himself to a bird, this cat is not interested in the fruit and vegetables. Whether intentional or not, the cat appears to be glancing rather sourly towards the viewer or the painter, as though asking why she could not paint something better and more suitable for a self-respecting cat.

The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III (1612-61)

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The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III

David Ryckaert III was a Flemish artist who contributed to genre painting, usually with scenes of peasants or workers, although he later painted aristocratic people and scenes of Hell. It is not certain whether The Painter’s Studio was staged or if the scene was based on Ryckaert’s studio, however, it provides an accurate portrayal of a 17th-century workshop. The artist is seated in the centre, making it clear he is the most important person in the painting – it is his studio. Posing for him is a male model whose likeness can also be seen on the artist’s canvas. Genre artists did not need to set up a tableau from which to paint but built the scene up in stages.

In the background is another painter working on a canvas. Since his features are blurred and his clothing less interesting than the other artist, it is assumed he was an assistant or pupil of the studio. On the right is another assistant who is preparing the pigments for the artist. Unlike today where paints come in tubes, artists had to make their own paints or hire someone to do it for them.

8cc74697d7f6a97972e0235f0b2a37bbSpot the Cat: Behind the artist’s stool, the cat is curled up in a ball, fast asleep. The colours of its fur reflect the hues of the artist’s clothing and painting, subliminally suggesting it belongs to the artist. Whilst the rest of the painting is busy, full of activity and movement, the cat is absorbed in its own world, indifferent to the hustle and bustle around him, thus asserting his independence.

The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (1753-1828)

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The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire

Jean-Baptiste Hilaire was a French artist and student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. Very little is known about him, however, his work is regularly likened to Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who worked a century before Hilaire. Watteau had revived an interest in colour and invented the genre Fête Galante, which often combined women in ball gowns with park and outdoors settings. When Watteau applied to the Royal Academy, his paintings did not fit into any of the traditional categories, which would usually mean rejection. The staff at the Academy, however, liked Watteau’s work so much, they created this genre so that he could join the school. Thus, when Hilaire joined the Royal Academy, this category was there ready and waiting.

The Reading combines a rural setting with the upper-class. The expensive material of the two women’s clothes suggests they are of gentle-birth, as does the water feature in the background of what may be part of their, or at least their father’s, estate. The ladies are also educated since they can read their lengthy correspondence, some of which lies on the ground. There is no indication as to who the letter is from, however, since they have gone into the garden away from prying eyes and ears to read, it could be from a close friend, betrothed or lover.

2013-01-23_09-13-46Spot the Cat: The cat is almost unnoticeable at first, posing like a statue on a pedestal as though it belongs there in the garden. With its face turned towards the viewer, the cat appears to be indifferent to or even bored with the girls and their gossip. Standing so still and motionless, the cat also seems detached from the world, once again suggesting cats are independent creatures with only concerns for themselves.

 

The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910)

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The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins

Louis Welden Hawkins was a Symbolist artist originally from Stuttgart, Germany, who took on French nationality later in life. Hawkins studied at the Académie Julian in Paris where he chose the path of Symbolism, which was a reaction against Impressionism. Hawkins was also influenced by the British Pre-Raphaelites, who he came across either in his studies or through his British father.

Symbolist painters often emphasised fantasy elements in their artwork, using metaphors and symbols to suggest mystical themes and hidden meanings. Hawkins is mostly remembered for his painting of dreamy female portraits, which are a stark contrast to his painting The Orphans. This sad painting contains two children embracing in front of their parent’s graves, which are slightly hidden by the overgrown grass. The sky is dismal and grey, reflecting the children’s emotions.

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 14.18.34Spot the Cat: For a Symbolist painting, The Orphans seems rather devoid of symbols except for the silhouette of a ginger cat on the wall at the back of the graveyard. Unlike previous examples where the cat has symbolised evil, indifference or self-absorption, this cat is a sign of the orphans’ fate, left to wander alone without their parents. Where will the children sleep? How will they fend for themselves without a roof over their head or food in their stomachs? Whilst the cat is not necessarily a negative creature, its presence symbolises loneliness, adding to the mournful feel of the painting.

Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

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Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a self-taught painter nicknamed Le Douanier (the customs officer) in reference to his job as a toll and tax collector, from which he retired aged 49 to concentrate on his art full-time. Rousseau claimed he had “no teacher other than nature”, which is why his paintings are described as Naive or Primitive art. Yet, to look at Rousseau’s work, it is hard to fathom what part of nature had inspired him since his figurative style is unrealistic, childish and does not respect the codes of colour and perspective.

Rousseau rarely painted full-length portraits but Portrait of Madame M. is an exception. Here, all traditional principles of perspective are thrown out of the window with Madame M. towering over everything. The trees are too small and the flowers to tall in comparison with each other and the giantess. Rousseau claimed to have invented the new genre of portrait landscapes, composed of a specific view with a figure of a person in the foreground.

It is not certain who Madame M. was, however, the Medici sleeves, bracelets, parasol and scarf suggest she was a wealthy middle-class woman. The painting may have been a commission to rival the traditional society portraits but whether the model was flattered by the dissymmetry of her arms, legs and head remains a mystery.

436px-Henri_Rousseau,_known_as_le_Douanier_-_Portrait_of_Madame_M;_-_Google_Art_ProjectSpot the Cat: Dwarfed by its imposing mistress, the tiny cat is playing with a ball of wool on the edge of the path. Unlike Madame M., the cat is more at home in the natural setting. It also helps to offset the rigidity of the portrait and contrasts with the colour of the woman’s clothing and stormy sky. The cat’s presence adds a sense of playfulness to the painting, without which would make the scene too serious.

Nebamun fowling in the marshes

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Nebamun fowling in the marshes

Nebamun fowling in the marshes is a fragment of a painted bird hunting scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an official scribe and grain accountant from Ancient Egypt (c.1350 BC). In this scene, Nebamun is shown hunting on the River Nile with his wife Hatshepsut and their young daughter. Nebamun dominates the scene with his huge size, expressing his importance. Fertile marshes were considered symbols of rebirth and the hunted animals a sign of triumph over nature.

The hieroglyphs in the image translate as “enjoying himself and seeing beauty,” which paired with the youthful depiction of Nebamun, hints at what the painters thought or hoped was in store in the afterlife: eternal youth and happiness.

1a64d496c116c8d33d37ce50817735fa9a0a742cSpot the Cat: Appreciated for their talents of catching mice and scaring birds away, cats were prized pets for the Egyptians. This cat, a true hunter, perches on a papyrus reed with a bird caught by the tail feathers in its mouth and two more under each paw.

The cat may have belonged to Nebamun and his family, however, in Ancient Egypt cats were celebrated as gods. In this instance, the cat may represent the Sun-God or the ancient deity Amun who fused with the Sun-God Ra to become Amun-Ra. Nebamun’s name translates as “My Lord is Amun”, which adds considerable weight to this theory.

Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer (1490-1564)

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Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer

Vincent Sellaer was a Flemish Renaissance artist known for his mythological and religious subjects. In this painting, he depicts the nymph Antiope of Thebes with her twin sons Amphion and Zethus. Jupiter, the king of the gods, was attracted to Antiope’s beauty and took the form of a satyr to take her by force. Pregnant and worried about the reaction of her father, Antiope ran away to Sicyon where she married King Epopeus. Antiope gave birth to twins, but only one was the son of Zeus; the other was the son of Epopeus. Amphion and Zethus went on to become the founders of Thebes.

Sellaer painted the semi-nude Antiope with her two sons who both have similar hair and complexions. Hugging Antiope from behind are two putti – chubby male children – who were often used in paintings to represent desire and passion. They were also associated with the god of erotic love, Cupid. In the background is a frightening satyr who is really Jupiter in disguise. The putti express the god’s desire for Antiope, the same desire that resulted in the birth of Amphion.

jupiter_satyr_antiope_twins_a_hiSpot the Cat: One of the twins rests his arm on an oversized cat in the bottom left-hand corner of the paintings. Unlike the lustful putti and satyr, the cat’s purpose is to highlight Antiope’s beauty. In Ancient Greece, cats were both good and bad depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, they were considered evil and were associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. On the other hand, cats were considered symbolic of feminine beauty and love. As in most civilisations, cats were useful creatures who could control vermin, thus protecting the household from plague and disease. After Christianity arrived in Greece, a legend was born that a cat was responsible for protecting the baby Jesus from rodents and snakes.

Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne (1602-94)

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Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne was a French Baroque painter who founded the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which later became the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Initially inspired by Rubens, De Champaigne’s style became less decorative after working with Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who favoured clarity, order and line over colour. Many of De Champaigne’s artworks were based on religious scenes, such as Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee.

Simon the Pharisee is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 7:36-50 where he invited Jesus for a meal but fails to show his guest the usual marks of hospitality, for example, washing his feet. During the meal, a sinful woman, sometimes identified as Mary Magdalene, entered the house and anointed Jesus’ feet with a jar of perfume. Outraged at the actions of the woman, Simon protested that the woman was a sinner and unworthy of touching Jesus, however, Jesus contrasted her faith with Simon’s lack of common decency. “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

christ-in-the-house-of-simon-the-pharisee-philippe-de-champaigneSpot the Cat: The cat goes almost unnoticed under the table near Simon’s feet. Sitting there unmoved by the scene around him, it seems at first that the cat is insignificant, however, knowing that cats often represent evil in religious paintings, its presence is symbolic. Having opposed Jesus’ forgiveness of the sinful woman, the cat’s appearance at Simon’s feet may indicate he is on the path to evil. The cat is not the only animal in the scene. A dog, which usually represents the disciples, paws at Simon’s robes as though pleading with him to listen to Jesus’ teachings.

Supper at Emmaus – Titian (1488-1576)

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Supper at Emmaus – Titian

Tiziano Vecelli, or Titian as he is better known, is one of the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance. His work has inspired many painters and the way he portrayed religious scenes became the principal method for artists for over a century. At the end of the 16th century, Biblical feasts were a key theme for painters and Supper at Emmaus was a close second to The Last Supper in popularity. In the lead up to this meal, Jesus joined two men, possibly disciples Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus but they did not recognise him. It was only when Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30) that they realised who he was, at which point Jesus vanished.

Titian’s painting reflects the famous layout in Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper with Jesus at the centre of a horizontal table with a view of a landscape behind him. Some critics liken the posture of one of the men to Judas, suggesting he was shocked about Jesus’ return.

Screenshot 2020-06-04 at 15.59.56Spot the Cat: The activity under the table also suggests there is a link between one of the men and Judas. Behind one of the table legs is a cat that is backing away from a dog that is bearing its teeth menacingly, as though trying to scare the cat away from Jesus. The cat’s snake-like tail is another indication of its evil intentions. Many people do not notice the cat at first because it is hidden in the shadows – shadows which almost look like demon wings.

Cats in Art History reveals how cats have been stigmatised for their independence, causing them to become symbols of evil, treason and selfishness. Yet, the exhibition reveals that this is not always the case. Cats can represent positive attributes and many cat-lovers may argue that they can be affectionate creatures. It is interesting how many artists have used cats as subliminal messages, many of which probably go unnoticed today. Thanks to the Universal Museum of Art, a cat’s presence in a painting will be appreciated more by many art viewers. Next time you see a feline in a painting ask yourself, what does it represent? Is it evil? Is it good? Or, does the artist just really like cats?

Of a Life/Time

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Imagine it’s early January 2019 and you are walking the back streets of Marylebone, wrapped up against the chill of the winter air. Chances are you will find yourself turning into Chiltern Street, a street full of character and red-bricked buildings. Full of specialist shops, Chiltern Street was voted “London’s Coolest Street” by the magazine Condé Nast Traveler due to its timeless quality and historical atmosphere.

Despite the selection of premium niche retailers, your eyes are instantly drawn to a small bright red shop front with a bold sign that boasts “Barber Shop”. Complete with a bench against the front window, and striped barber’s pole, it almost feels as though you have travelled back in time, however, if you wanted to get your hair cut, you are about to be disappointed.

The old barber shop is now the location of The Gallery of Everything, opened in 2009 by curator director James Brett. The gallery belongs to the critically acclaimed touring installation The Museum of Everything founded the same year, which is the leading advocate for non-academic and private art-making, collaborating with a whole host of contemporary artists, curators, writers and institutions. The gallery is the museum’s personal space to display works by masters and newly discovered creators of all backgrounds.

“Our aim is to challenge institutions which, often unintentionally, deny wall-space to people of colour, vulnerable adults, untrained artists and other so-called minorities. Look at many of the most important museums in the world, from the Whitney to Tate Modern, you will find their definitions of art are much narrower and more restrictive than you imagine. What we lobby for is not simply equality, but change. We are not here to read art history, we are here to write it.”

Walking past the gallery during the first weeks of the year, you would have seen a brightly coloured tapestry featuring images of people and writing in Russian. This was just one of many contemporary tapestries created by the octogenarian Olga Frantskevich that featured in an exhibition titled Of a Life/Time, which ran between 25th November 2018 and 27th January 2019. Using her artwork as a discourse of memory, this was Frantskevich’s first exhibition outside of the eastern bloc.

Frantskevich has sewn all her life and recalls being taught by her grandmother at an early age. Sewing gave Frantskevich a creative outlet at a time that paper was not readily available and, therefore, drawing out of the question. Whilst working on a farm to earn some money to help support her mother and younger siblings, Frantskevich would practice her embroidery on pieces of sackcloth she found discarded about the place.

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Swans

Although the majority of Frantskevich’s tapestries have been produced within the last decade, they recall her personal life and memories of a childhood traumatised by war. Born in 1937 in Vitebsk in northeast Belarus, a country that was ruled by the USSR throughout the twentieth century until receiving independence in the 1990s, Olga Frantskevich was a child of war living under German occupation during WWII until she was seven years old. Her embroidered autobiography summarises the things she and her neighbours went through, including being challenged by soldiers, losing loved ones, celebrating their freedom and welcoming home the war heroes.

Occupation of Belarus (or Byelorussia as it was then called) began on 22nd of June 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union by German troops. At the time, Frantskevich was four years old and the occupation would not end until she was seven. During the war, the Nazis destroyed over 5,295 Belarusian settlements, in the process killing most, if not all, the inhabitants. Some towns and cities were deliberately attacked and burnt down, whereas others were bombed by planes flying overhead, just like many areas throughout Europe. A number of villages, for instance, Khatyn in central Belarus, were massacred by police battalions, resulting in the death of all 156 inhabitants. Although German occupation only lasted for three years, it is believed an estimated 2,230,000 people were killed in total.

Frantskevich embroidered her memory of bomb attacks in one of her tapestries. Women and children can be seen fleeing from burning buildings, their arms raised in panic whilst forbidding, grey aeroplanes fly overhead. Since the majority of men were in the army, women were left to fend for themselves during these attacks, often finding themselves homeless after their houses had been destroyed. They could not even find shelter in nearby forests due to soldiers and attack dogs patrolling the area.

During the early days of the German occupation, a resistance Soviet partisan movement began, engaging in guerilla warfare against the invaders. They used the woods and swamps as places to hide and plan their next attacks, hence Nazi soldiers began to keep a close eye on the Belarussian woodlands, as shown in a couple of Frantskevich’s tapestries. The partisans were responsible for the heavy damage to German supply lines and communications. They disrupted railways and bridges, intercepted telegrams and attacked depots in order to block or hinder the enemy. On occasion, the partisans ambushed and captured Axis soldiers (Germans, Italians and Japanese). Due to the amount of sabotage, the Germans ended up withdrawing many of their forces from the front line.

Many of Frantskevich’s memories of the war period are actually recollections of stories told by her aunt who was a nurse during the war. Frantskevich dedicated her piece called The Final Offensive to her aunt – her mother’s sister – Olga Yakovlevna Ginko, and her uncle Nikolai Dmitrievich. Frantskevich’s uncle was a soldier during the war, however, he was wounded in battle. As a result, he lost the use of one of his hands and could no longer serve in the army. Nonetheless, he continued to fight for his country by assisting the partisans for the remainder of the war.

Frantskevich’s aunt spoke of the wounded soldiers, those who lost their limbs, those she nursed and those she could not save. She spoke of things she saw, things no one should ever witness, and Frantskevich, many decades later, translated them onto tapestry. With precise embroidery, the horrors of war are vividly shown, complete with bloodstains and flames. Although Frantskevich never witnessed the combat first hand, her aunt’s haunting tales have stayed with her all her life.

What Frantskevich experienced herself was the poverty and hunger of the people left behind while their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were out fighting. At this time in history, women were not seen as equal to men and had not been allowed certain “male” careers. The war, however, took many men away from their jobs and women had to fill their places.

Frantskevich captions one of her works with “My mother was given 300 grams of bread for all the work that she did.” Under the Nazi regime, some workers were paid with food rather than money, however, the amount was paltry. Three-hundred grams of bread does not last long, particularly in large families, and who knew how long it would be until the next payment?

A number of Frantskevich’s tapestries set in 1945 are titled Widows of Russia and focus on women whose husbands have been killed or are missing. Rather than showing a group of weeping ladies, Frantskevich reveals the determination these people had to keep going. One image shows women working hard in a field doing the work their husbands once did. The caption reads, “With love in their hearts, the faithful wait. Perhaps their husbands are alive, perhaps one day they will come home.” The one-line heartbreaking story, however, that accompanies the piece indicates, “It is already autumn, still they wait.”

Another tapestry shows the widows cooking potatoes in a pot over a fire. Whether this in some way indicates their financial or home situation is unknown, however, the most important part is the embroidered text at the bottom of the 142 cm length of cloth: “They hide love in their hearts. Their silent song is weeping.” A different tapestry, featuring the women seated around a table spread of potatoes and bread has a similar caption: “They keep love hidden in their hearts, but their songs are not silent, they are weeping.”

The widows shown in Frantskevich’s work have united in their grief. They may have lost a husband but they still have each other. Life must continue, upon which these women are endeavouring to focus. Frantskevich was obviously too young to have a husband, however, she did lose her father in the war, so she understood the feeling of grief.

Victory Day occurred on 9th May 1945 beginning with the Soviet Union following the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender in the early hours of the morning. Since Belarus gained independence from the USSR in 1991, the 9th May has become a non-working day with a ceremony on Victory Square in Minsk to commemorate the ending on the war. In Frantskevich’s tapestry The Hero, she shows their village accordion player, Leonid, still in uniform, delivering the news that the war had been won. A similar piece, Victory Day, contains two fictional people who represent that “when they heard that the war was over, people met and sang and cried with joy.”

The joy people felt can be seen in The Champions in which three soldiers are dancing in celebration. This particular scene represents the liberation of the burnt-out village of Sarya after the soldiers had cleared the area of mines, making it safe for the villagers to return home – or, at least, what remained of home. The middle soldier wears a women’s headscarf, although he is clearly a man. The silly behaviour emphasises the happiness of the soldiers who then invited the village-folk to share a meal and celebrate together.

The end of the war meant the return of loved ones, those who had survived the fighting and lived to tell the tale. Hello, Mamma! shows a returning son greeting his mother much to her delight. It may have been months, even years since they had last seen each other and they have been reunited at last. Scenes like this were common all over the world as the soldiers gradually made their way home to their families. Life, however, could not return to the way things were before. Places had changed, people had changed and the echoes of war were not easily eradicated.

Although most men returned to their day jobs, others were in no physical and mental shape to be able to do so. The Hero Returns shows the fate of one of the soldiers who, despite being lucky to survive, has returned home an amputee. He can no longer work on the farm as he once did, therefore, the women who took on the jobs of men during the war were required to continue.

For Frantskevich, her family life could not return to the way things were before the war. In the years after Victory Day, she remembers visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where she laid down flowers in memory of her father who had no grave of his own.

Nonetheless, Frantskevich’s post-war childhood was not all doom and gloom. One tapestry shows a scene from 1951 when she was in the seventh grade at school. Apparently, there were only nine children in her class, however, that did not stop them from joining in state celebrations, such as May Day on the first of the month. Frantskevich remembers designing the posters for the school, state farm and rallies with slogans, such as, “We celebrate May Day.”

Not all of Frantskevich’s embroidery shown at The Gallery of Everything was about the war. A few small pieces were intended for pillow or cushion cases, such as Autumn with birds and rowan-berries that are frequently seen in Belarus at that time of year. Two other cases feature two pigs and are both titled I Love You. Whether the animals represent specific people is unknown but the idea is clear. In one, the pigs express their love for each other by sharing gifts of vegetables. In the other, they display the same sentiment by giving flowers.

The display of Olga Frantskevich’s work at The Gallery of Everything unfortunately finished at the end of January, however, her work is held in several museums in Russia, including Muzey Balashikhskiy and the Muzey Russkogo Lubka i Naivnogo Iskusstva. Although the style of her tapestries may not appeal to all, it is amazing how easily she captures her memories and history of the war in the former USSR. History books tend to focus on the facts, usually directed at those who played significant parts in the making of history. Frantskevich, however, gives the lesser known perspective of the common people, those who were oppressed by the Germans; lost their homes and their fathers and husbands; those whose lives were changed forever.

Another factor that makes Frantskevich’s work so remarkable is that it is all hand-woven, a time-consuming task that is even more extraordinary for someone in their eighties. Where some artists may sketch their memories, Frantskevich embroiders hers instead, resulting in some bright, precise designs that perfectly portray the thoughts, pictures and memories in her head. Thanks to The Gallery of Everything, the people of London were able to experience and admire these phenomenal works.

The Gallery of Everything is open from Wednesday to Saturday from 11am until 6:30pm. It is also open on Sundays at 2pm until 6pm. A number of exhibitions run throughout the year, details of which can be found on their website: www.gallevery.com