All hail Cat Jesus! The fantastic feline artist behind Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest biopic

·7 min read

Cat Jesus, as the work is known to staff, can be found on a painted mirror in the archives of the Bethlem hospital’s Museum of the Mind. It was created by the celebrated cartoonist of comical cats and Bethlem psychiatric hospital patient Louis Wain, whose art is about to go on show here. One Christmas, Wain was asked to help with the institutional decorations. He asked if he could paint on mirrors – and the results still survive. In Cat Jesus, a feline Father Christmas holds up a white kitten with a sunflower halo around its head while other cats salute the radiant offspring, in front of a Taj Mahal-like building in a fantasy jungle.

It really looks like holy art for a new cat religion. You can see that too in another picture of a white cat, who stares at you and seems to say: “I am happy because everybody loves me.” Wain had already depicted, as his contemporary HG Wells put it, “a cat society”. Born in 1860, he was a star of the golden age of British illustration. Pictorial magazines such as The Illustrated London News were hugely popular and still used drawings, not photographs. Wain drew cats doing human things – playing cricket, taking tea, going to the doctor – and the pet-loving public lapped it up.

Yet, as the forthcoming Benedict Cumberbatch-produced biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain relates, these popular pussycats didn’t give him a happy life. Tragedy and financial ruin soured the milk. He started to believe there was something sinister about electricity, and that his sisters were stealing his money. After attacking them, he was certified insane in 1924 and spent the rest of his life in asylums.

We don’t have “asylums” any more. Bethlem Royal hospital is now an NHS psychiatric hospital in spacious grounds in Beckenham, on the outskirts of London. Its museum is part of the open-access site. But this hospital was founded in the middle ages and, under its old nickname Bedlam, was not just one of the first asylums but the world’s most notorious. Hogarth depicted it as a place of human tragedy and cruelty in his painting The Rake in Bedlam, inspiring Goya’s madhouse scenes and, later, the Boris Karloff film Bedlam.

This feared place in the mythology of London, founded in 1247, originally stood where Liverpool Street station is today, then after the Great Fire moved to Moorfields. In 1815, it moved again to Southwark, where the central, domed part of the Victorian asylum survives as today’s Imperial War Museum. Originally it had two long wings leading to the heavily barred female and male criminal wards. It was to this place Wain was brought. He was in Bethlem five years, then in a hospital near St Albans until his death in 1939. As a patient he carried on drawing cats, but not necessarily as we know them.

Wain’s early cat cartoons are skilful and quite funny. But as art, I much prefer his late work, which has been diagnosed as psychotic. Soon after Wain’s death, a psychiatrist called Walter Maclay found eight of these later pictures in an antique shop and bought them. He analysed them as a sequence in which we can see the breakdown of a mind, and they still appear in textbooks as visual symptoms of schizophrenia. Looking at four of the originals in the Bethlem museum’s permanent collection, it is easy to understand what he meant. The first is a “classic” Louis Wain cat: cute, smiling and drawn with vivid realism. In the next, a cat made of jagged pulsing red lines with huge dark empty eyes floats in a radiating ether of blue and green. It looks like a psychedelic 1960s version of the Cheshire cat.

The next is even wilder. Just as Carroll’s Cheshire cat leaves only its smile behind, the mask of a cat face is isolated in darkness, glowing uncanny blue, fringed with flames of red, orange and emerald, something between an ancient Tibetan demon and a fractal pattern. The final cat in the series is hard even to recognise as a cat. Its eyes are buried in a stunningly rich, complex symmetry, like a fantasy of a Turkish carpet in which a feline face is hidden.

Maclay’s interest was clinical rather than aesthetic. He used these works to map degrees of psychosis in the illness with which he diagnosed the recently deceased Wain: schizophrenia. It was an abuse of science. As museum director Colin Gale and archivist David Luck explain while we’re admiring these intense moggies, Maclay had no evidence the drawings formed a series, or in what order they were created. The “first” one may have been created last. Wain clearly portrayed some very unusual and even scary cats in his asylum years, but he also drew his lifelike funny ones. “I would resist any simplistic link between Louis Wain’s illness and his creativity,” says Gale.

Yet to me, the metamorphosis of Wain’s cats looks like a liberation. This Victorian-born artist, who made his name gently mocking the human customs of the imperial age, burst out of the pedantic habits of mainstream British art in his hospital years. In the melancholy freedom of his illness, he escaped into delirious visions of divine felines. He became an outsider artist.

While British psychiatrists were using art as medical evidence, a German doctor, Hans Prinzhorn, led the way to reevaluating the work of asylum inmates as art. Jean Dubuffet later put this admiration of such art into the mainstream of modernity with his concept of art brut – “raw art”.

Wain was no modernist but in the asylum he freed himself from the bonds of Victorian draughtsmanship. Looking through some of the works about to be hung in Bethlem’s exhibition, the early, popular depictions of cats doing funny human things seem to me more unbalanced than his later visions: the “cat society” Wells praised is overcrowded with cats, brittle in its humour. As an artist he is much more free when he explores his surreal, hallucinatory side.

We don’t even know what Wain suffered from. Maclay’s diagnosis of schizophrenia was a post facto speculation. As I looked through a stack of Wain’s art, from jolly cats sledging to cats that are eerie patterns of lurid colour, I started to wonder if the key to his mental world is so obvious it gets ignored: his fascination with cats. For there was something very odd, even repressed, about the sentimental cats he drew in Victorian magazines. When he pictured them in a more unsettling way, he was more openly embracing their place in art history and mythology as uncanny dream animals.

Wain charmed the world with lovable cats when he started selling his work in the 1880s. “What he communicated was a joie de vivre,” says Gale. Yet, up to then, the cat in art was far less homely, associated with sex, the night and madness. In Goya’s print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, a cat is among the evil creatures that unthrone a man’s sanity as he sleeps. When Wain was a child, Edouard Manet shocked Paris with his frank unglamourised nude Olympia. At the feet of the courtesan, her black cat screams, arches its back and prickles its hairs in an image of sexuality and aggression. Similarly uncanny cats graced posters for the legendary fin-de-siecle Paris cabaret Le Chat Noir.

But these macabre modern cats are all the great-grand-kittens of ancient Egyptian art. While Egyptian cats can be delicately and beautifully observed, they are not exactly the cats next door. They are gods. Ancient Egypt’s feline divinities included Bastet, a cat-headed goddess associated with both sex and motherhood, and the Great Tom Cat, a form taken by the sun god to slay a world-devouring serpent.

Sun gods? Maternal goddesses? It makes you think of Wain’s Christmassy cat messiah with a sunflower halo. His multicoloured cats from space suggest a sublime cat religion. Perhaps he is not simply depicting lurid cat dreams in the asylum but working out his own mythology. Wain’s early work creates a rational feline world where, instead of haunting the Paris night, cats play cricket and take tea on an English village green. It is the art of a man keeping a lid on his miaowing demons. Later, in the most psychedelic works of his life in hospital, he lets the cat out.

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