Hello, Kitties

Published on 6 January 2015

Cats have long been the muse of creative souls in search of purr-formance art


What is it they say about cats having nine lives? Talk about staying power! Undeniably, cats have inspired artists to paint, sculpt and write about them for centuries. From Ancient Egypt in the form of Bastet the cat goddess, to the Renaissance and Neo-classical periods: Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing, Virgin and Child With Cat (around 1478-81), Pablo Picasso’s ferocious Cat Catching a Bird painting (1939), just to name a few.

The depiction of cats in the arts is, like everything else, evolving. Gone are the days when they were painted as passive pets or one-dimensional goddesses. Today, cats are celebrities in their own right. They anchor shows, books and art collections.

The Flamboyant

Rum Tum Tugger, Mr Mistoffelees, Old Deuteronomy… there can be no production more quintessentially cat-centric than Cats — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s remarkable musical that has taken the world by storm. Based on T.S. Eliot’s book, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the theatre classic has been watched by over 70 million people in 14 languages since 1981. It has won two Olivier Awards (including Musical of the Year), seven Tony Awards and holds the record for being the longest-running musical at London’s West End — 21 years!

If you think Puss in Boots is a suave, swashbuckling character from DreamWorks’ Shrek franchise, think again. He made his debut as a literary character in a European fairy tale by Charles Perrault in 1697 but was already present in the 1550s, woven into the writings of Italian author Giovanni Francesco Straparola.

The Whimsical

Who can forget that iconic grin? While most know him from Disney’s 1951 animation film, Alice in Wonderland or Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action film of the same name, this whimsical cat actually first appeared in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. He’s since magically appeared in pop culture from television to political cartoons.

It’s a cat. It’s a bus. It’s a… Cat Bus? This memorable character in Japanese film-maker Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy film My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is so popular he has a 20-minute spin-off film, Mei and the Kittenbus. When Disney took over the international distribution of Studio Ghibli’s animated films, Cat Bus rumbled to international fame, too.

The Classy

Translated from the French, Le Chat Noir means ‘the black cat’. In Paris, you’ll see this iconic cat on souvenir t-shirts, postcards and coffee mugs. This 1896 poster is the work of French Art Nouveau painter Théophile Steinlen, who was commissioned to create poster art for Le Chat Noir — a cabaret which opened in 1881 in the Bohemian Montmartre quarter of Paris.

He speaks in rhymes and dons a classy striped hat and bow tie. The Cat in the Hat is a popular children’s book written and illustrated by Theodor Geisel, who wrote under the pen name Dr Seuss. First published in 1957, the book was adapted into an animated TV special in 1971 and into a live-action film — starring Mike Myers as the Cat — in 2003.

The Big

In C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series of seven novels (1950-1956), the main character is, arguably, Aslan the Great Lion who saves the mystical fantasy world of Narnia. The epic story has since been adapted for radio, television, stage and film.

Nobody wants to be stranded on a lifeboat, adrift at sea with a Bengal tiger. Maybe that’s why Richard Parker is so unforgettable. First made famous when Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi won the 2002 Man Booker Prize, Parker gained international fame with Ang Lee’s 2012 film adaption, which won four Oscars at the 85th Academy Awards.

Singapore Strays

Famous local cats give paws for thought.

The catmaSutra cats are Halo (a ginger tabby) and Angel (a Russian Blue), two playful felines who have inspired owner, Singaporean artist Paul Koh, to start a collection of paintings.  Since 2004, Koh has done nine solo exhibitions on his furry friends. You  will also find them on collectible tote bags, phone covers, tile coasters, and more at www.catmasutra.com.

While there are no actual cats on stage, Kuo Pao Kun’s play, Mama Looking for Her Cat, is significant to local theatre because it is Singapore’s first multilingual play. Written by Kuo in 1988, the play, about an old dialect-speaking mother who loses her only companion, a cat, addresses the alienation and communication breakdown between a woman and her bilingual children in a multicultural Singapore where dialect use is fast eroding.

Cats plays at Grand Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, 9-25 Jan. Tickets available via Sistic

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