Friday, June 17, 2011

WAIN'S WORLD: Schizophrenic Thoughts, Psychedelic Cats

Wikipedia: Louis Wain (5 August 1860 – 4 July 1939) was an English artist best known for his drawings, which consistently featured anthropomorphised large-eyed cats and kittens. In his later years he suffered from schizophrenia, which, according to some psychologists, can be seen in his works.
At the age of 23, Wain married his sisters' governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten years his senior (which was considered quite scandalous at the time), and moved with her to Hampstead in north London. Emily soon began to suffer from cancer, and died only three years into their marriage. It was during this period that Wain discovered the subject that would define his career. During her illness, Emily was comforted by their pet cat Peter, and Wain taught him tricks such as wearing spectacles and pretending to read in order to amuse his wife. He began to draw extensive sketches of the large black and white cat. He later wrote of Peter, "To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work." Peter can be recognized in many of Wain's early published works.

More Wiki-ness: In subsequent years, Wain's cats began to walk upright, smile broadly and use other exaggerated facial expressions, and wear sophisticated contemporary clothing. Wain's illustrations showed cats playing musical instruments, serving tea, playing cards, fishing, smoking, and enjoying a night at the opera. Such anthropomorphic portrayals of animals were very popular in Victorian England, and were often found in prints, on greeting cards and in satirical illustrations such as those of John Tenniel.
Wain was a prolific artist over the next thirty years, sometimes producing as many as several hundred drawings a year. He illustrated about one hundred children's books, and his work appeared in papers, journals, and magazines, including the
Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915.

Yet more: From this point, Wain's popularity began to decline. He returned from New York broke, and his mother had died of Spanish influenza while he was abroad. His mental instability also began around this time, and increased gradually over the years. He had always been considered quite charming but odd, and often had difficulty in distinguishing between fact and fantasy. Others frequently found him incomprehensible, due to his way of speaking tangentially. His behavior and personality changed, and he began to suffer from delusions, with the onset of schizophrenia. Whereas he had been a mild-mannered and trusting man, he became hostile and suspicious, particularly towards his sisters. He claimed that the flickering of the cinema screen had robbed the electricity from their brains. He began wandering the streets at night, rearranging furniture within the house, and spent long periods locked in his room writing incoherently.
Some speculate that the onset of Wain's schizophrenia was precipitated by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can be contracted from cats. The theory that toxoplasmosis can trigger schizophrenia is the subject of ongoing research, though the origins of the theory can be traced back as early as 1953.

From Neatorama:

During the onset of his disease at 57, Wain continued to paint, draw and sketch cats, but the focus changed from fanciful situations, to focus on the cats themselves.
Characteristic changes in the art began to occur, changes common to schizophrenic artists. Jagged lines of bright color began emanating from his feline subjects. The outlines of the cats became severe and spiky, and their outlines persisted well throughout the sketches, as if they were throwing off energy.
Soon the cats became abstracted, seeming now to be made up of hundreds of small repetitive shapes, coming together in a clashing jangles of color that transform the cat into something resembling an Eastern diety.
The abstraction continued, the cats now being seen as made up by small repeating patterns, almost fractal in nature. Until finally they ceased to resemble cats at all, and became the ultimate abstraction, an indistinct form made up by near symmetrical repeating patterns.

But beware, for as Strange Attractor tells us:

The dramatically satisfying idea that these beautiful pieces reflect Wain's ongoing descent into schizophrenia is most likely untrue. In his biography of Wain, The Man Who Drew Cats (as far as I know this is the only biography of the artist), Rodney Dale shows that Dr Walter Maclay, a collector of art by mental patients, found the images and arranged them, arbitrarily (some are unsigned and all are undated), into an order that suggested the progression of Wain's madness...
Says Dale: "Assembling what little factual knowledge we have on Dr Maclay's eight paintings, there is clearly no justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain's art at different times. Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures..."
The kaleidoscopic cats, and other fine examples of art by sufferers from schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses, are on display at the Bethlehem hospital archive and gallery in Beckenhem, Kent (just south of London) which is well worth a visit.



The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Cool post Shelby. I'm a great admirer of Wain's later, more menacing, psychotic cats myself. I know David Tibet from Current 93 is also a big admirer and used to have a large collection of his work. You may be interested to know that Savage Pencil and the writer David Quantick have been working on a comic strip biog of Wain, some of which was recently published in Alan Moore's 'Dodgem Logic' magazine. Or not.

Korla said...

Very inspiring. Thank you! Toxoplasmosis sure is creepy. Sooner or later it'll be the cats or us.

Shelby Cobras said...

I think we're all rooting for the cats.

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