The new exhibit, “In the Company of Cats and Dogs” opened at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art this week, putting the world’s two most beloved pet species front and center.
Covering 33 centuries of art, the exhibit includes works by well-known and influential artists such as Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, Edward Hopper, Louise Bourgeois, Jan Weenix and Andrew Wyeth. And when you’ve had enough of the masters, you’ll find a handful of YouTube cat clips on display because what’s a 21st-century feline event without a video of Nora the Piano Cat?
Curator Francesca Consagra gave us the story behind the exhibit.
What can visitors expect when they view the exhibition?
The works cover ancient Egypt to the present and are divided into themes: religion, mythology, hunting, herding, literature, morality, abandonment, aggression and domesticity. I hope that we may surprise our visitors, so I won’t reveal too much about how the experience will unfold for them.
Can you shed light on the role of pets in art? It’s not just about cute furry faces.
Artists are superb observers of life, and they have been depicting our relationships with cats and dogs for millennia.
The exhibition offers a glimpse into social changes that have occurred over time. For instance, while cats and dogs were prominent in ancient Egypt and in Greco-Roman culture as hunters and pets, the rise of Christianity ushered in an era of unusual suspicion and maltreatment of these two animals, especially cats. By the 14th century, due to new Christian teachings and the revival of classical texts, dogs began to appear more frequently and favorably in art. They are seen as loyal companions, healers and signifiers of a person’s high moral and social status. Cats, on the other hand, remained mostly symbols of evil, cruelty and sin in European art well into the 18th century.
The cat’s rise in status evolved partially because pet-keeping became increasingly common in European households during the Enlightenment, a cultural movement that emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. People made room for pets in households, allowing them to connect with nature and to teach children about kindness and responsibility.
The current Internet obsession with cats seems somewhat frivolous, but could it be seen as a modern-day version of this centuries-old tradition that was embraced by master artists?
We have five cat videos near the entrance of the exhibition, presenting the cat’s role in contemporary culture. Some people think that cat videos provide a space for cat owners to share their cats’ personalities and temperaments with other cat lovers for the first time. It’s been suggested that the Internet is the cat owner’s version of the dog park.
Did any UT faculty participate in the making of this exhibition?
I started the project by contacting Sam Gosling, a psychology professor who researches personality and temperament in non-human animals. He not only recommended the exhibition’s title, but an influential book by Hal Herzog, a renowned anthrozoologist, whose writings helped me better understand human-animal relations. Two of Gosling’s graduate students, Stephen DeBono and Jamie Fratkin, were especially helpful and provided further readings and insights.
Janet M. Davis, an associate professor of American studies who is writing a book on the growth of the animal welfare movement in the United States, informed our approach to the American works in the exhibition. She assigned students in her Signature Course to research and write about these works.
Other faculty (including Edward Chambers, art history; Philippa Levine, history; and Amon Burton, law) kindly recorded their thoughts about particular works of art for our audio guide.
While You’re There
Check out the Blanton’s new WorkLAB Satellites – art-making stations that double as contemporary art installation (read about them in the Austin American-Statesman).