The cliche that artists create out of some desperate desire for immortality is so commonplace that it’s often taken for granted as the reason anybody would pick up a pen or a pencil or a brush. Blame Keats and his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” for (pardon the pun) romanticizing the idea, blame Wilde‘s pithiness for giving the idea a wicked enough barb that it still sticks in our cynical age, blame a thousand other artists before and after them for harping on and on about the idea, but over the centuries artists’ wrestling with the purpose of their legacy and the purpose of their work has morphed to become one of the favorite chestnuts of pop psychologists and armchair critics eager for an explanation that can handily summarize (or when necessary dismiss) the power of art. While it’s as trite and misleading as any other artistic commonplace, reducing as it does beauty to an aesthetic cryogenic freezing tank, in its carelessness it raises a fascinating question: if we accept that the intention underlining all artistic endeavors is a fear of death then where, exactly, does that leave us -- the audience -- as we go seeking art? Are we directed by impulses not unlike those that brought religious believers towards icons in hope of touching the divine? Are we eager to affirm a hope that, no matter the age, humans have remained humans, that we are not unique and so not alone in history? Or are we, as Taiyo Matsumoto (alongside his wife Saho Tono, who is named as co-creator in the credits) cheekily suggests in Cats of the Louvre, seeking sanctuary from the ravages of time by hiding ourselves away in our associations with artifacts that have achieved immortality? And if so, at what cost comes this ersatz, second-hand immortality?
Certainly there are few better settings for a story interrogating the supposed timeless power of art than the Louvre, a museum whose very name has become synonymous with the trove of masterpieces housed therein. Yet rather than inundate readers with depictions of classical art or long-winded theoretical discussions between museum staff and art experts, Matsumoto oddly foregrounds the latest generation of a long line of cats who’ve occupied an obscure corner of the Louvre’s grounds since the 17th century. Painstaking effort is made to recreate the environs and the contents of the Louvre -- it’s clear from the deeply detailed recreations of the art on display and the Louvre’s grounds that Matsutomo is intimately familiar with the museum and spared himself no trouble capturing its unique grandeur -- and time is devoted to chronicling the lives of a human cast -- the tour guide Cecile, the nightwatchmen Patrick and Marcel, the preservationist Monsieur de Montvalon and Arrieta, Marcel’s long-missing sister-- but these elements exists less for their own ends than to facilitate and underscore the misadventures of the book’s titular tabbies. It’s a choice made doubly odd by the fact that these cats care little for the fact they they’re surrounded by the treasure of ages; their main interests lay in avoiding the staff of the museum by day and traipsing over to the nearby Tuileries Gardens at night so they can carouse freely, openly, with little concern for danger. Of their number it is only Snowbébé, a cat six years old who appears no older than a kitten of several months, who finds value in the artifacts of the Louvre and only Snowbébé who responds to art’s seductive power. For Snowbébé is one of what Matsumoto dubs “the pictorialized,” rare individuals with the ability to enter paintings at will and live there free from the constraints of time.
Cats of the Louvre’s central conceit might suggest it would fall somewhere between the twee edutainment of E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and the family-friendly preciousness of Disney’s The Aristocats, or, if one’s feeling generous, somewhere closer to T. S. Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: both the hidden workings of museums and the personal lives of cats have always provided popular fodder for whimsical escapism so it’s easy to imagine how combining the two might lead to a story about a cat learning the history of human art through his adventures. Yet Matsumoto is clear to establish from the first that Cats is less concerned with any such capering and more deeply concerned with the inevitability of death. It’s no accident that the book opens on a print of and later revolves around the obscure Mannerist painting The Funeral Procession of Love, that the very first panel of the book notes the season, that a stopped watch serves as a central symbol: such reminders of the passage of time and consequent reality of death are sprinkled throughout, even into the very lives of the cast, so that we might not overlook this reality. The search for nightwatchman Marcel’s presumably long dead sister drives a significant portion of the plot; it’s suggested that tour guide Cecile abandoned a burgeoning career as a restorer to care for her dying father; one of the Louvre’s cats, the menacing Sawtooth, was so traumatized by the deaths he witnessed as a stray that he ceaselessly urges his fellow felines to murder the recklessly wandering Snowbébé before more merciless members of the Louvre’s administration discover and eject the lot of them into the unforgiving Parisian streets.
It’s a fair concern, but one that disguises Sawtooth’s larger conflict with Snowbébé: for one whose life has left him scarred mentally and physically, forever aware of the dangers of the weighty material world, the continued indulgence of a brat who can escape at will into some unchanging plane of airy aesthetics is a deep insult. And indeed there is something disturbing about Snowbébé’s apathy towards matters of life and death. When rumors spread that the sphinx cat Twiggy, Snowbébé’s self-appointed protector, has been burned alive while trying to protect Snowbébé the latter turns inward, to self-pity. “It seems I’m not suited for this world,” he confesses as he begins suicide by self-denial. The other cats may treat this same news of flippantly -- bursting into uproarious laughter, turning to jesting song and dance, calling dibs on his portion of the food -- but they at least acknowledge its reality. Similarly, their later decision to turn away from Sawtooth’s gored body because it disgusts them might mark them as cold, but it too is a reaction rooted in an acknowledgment of the situation’s ugly material reality. That they behave inhumanely doesn’t matter: they aren’t human, no matter what Matsumoto’s decision to occasionally anthropomorphize them might suggest, and so are governed by different mores and instincts than those that govern us. They at least have an excuse. What’s more unnerving is Snowbébé’s passive, removed interpretation of any fatal situation. After witnessing the demise of a spider he considers one of his few friends he then devours its corpse, an act which is afforded a nearly full-sized, wide-and-long panel of stretched dimensions and vanishing horizons, dark inks, and a lone chomping sound effect meant to emphasis how alien and cold and lonely -- conceptually and literally -- this act is. All his time hiding within what many consider the apotheosis of human culture and beauty has not gifted him with special insight into matters of life and death but in fact left him even less human than his decidedly feline friends.
But If Cats is deeply preoccupied with death and critical of escapism it’s not lacking for humor, or for warmth; it’s hardly what might be described as grim. There’s something moony about Matsumoto’s approach to our inevitable end that removes it of its sting. This might be easily attributed to the prominence of the cats. Here as in life it’s the contrast between their cool remove, preening stylishness, and obvious foolishness that makes Matsumoto’s felines such a joy to follow; there’s an observed quality to their play, their fights, even the aforementioned frivolity they display in the face of death that captures so much of their appeal. Anyone who’s spent long enough around a pack of cats or even an afternoon (a Caturday?) browsing cat-themed videos on Youtube knows how arbitrary their moods, how particular their politics, how engaging their dramas can be, but we’ve so long emphasized the cuteness of these idiosyncrasies that we forget how bizarre they must seem to somebody on first encounter. Not Matsumoto, whose decision to emphasizes just how truly strange these animals are gifts the book an absurdity that mitigates against its more dour inclinations.
It’s a task his is pencils and inks are equally well suited to. While Matsumoto’s lines have always been jagged, fanciful, lovingly detailed, quick to reject the market-friendly professionalism of mainstream contemporary manga for exaggerated stylings that share DNA with the sexy bombast of Western luminaries like Enki Bilal and Moebius, here in Cats his lines feel so coarse and free they could be mistaken for the content of a sketchbook. The borders of panels have not been aligned by ruler; they cant at strange angles and wobble where his pen must have slipped. Human anatomy is often stiff bordering on wooden and then, suddenly, plastic, with characters seeming to stretch well beyond the extremes their anatomy could handle; in fact there is a general rubberiness to the environment where the details of shapes and surroundings become wobbly and indeterminate bordering on impressionistic. Even his recreations of famous art seem to stop just before they congeal into solid, definitive shapes. It’s not that Matsumoto has turned amateurish here, as if when confronted with classic art he’s revealed as some charlatan; it’d be foolish to suggest this when his renderings of classic sculptures, paintings, and pottery are so meticulously researched and so accurately capture the power of the original. The sketchiness is calculated.
Replicas too faithful would feel lifeless and uncanny, just as an art style intent on realism or even Matsumoto’s trademark explosiveness would feel oppressive when mixed with this subject matter and asinine when trying to capture the eccentricities of these cats. Matsumoto may be smart enough not to condescend to his subjects until they become precious but he’s also aware enough to realize that unless he adopts an urbane humor the cats might become boring, the thematics dreadfully dull. In a less playful work, Snowbébé’s final revelation that his escapist obsession with art has been to his detriment might have played as hectoring. Whatever truth there is in the idea that artifice can dull our sense of reality to dangerous ends, we’ve heard it for so long -- since Plato first denounced the written word in The Republic thousands of years ago -- that we immediately turn defensive when it’s trotted out again. So instead Matsumoto addresses it obliquely, underscores Snowbébé’s own encounter with Arrieta inside The Funeral Procession of Love through a conversation between Cecile and the art restorer Monsieur de Montvalon about the purpose and limitations of his craft. When asked how she would restore the Mona Lisa (a painting she’s grown to resent given tourists’ uncritical obsession with it), she replies “I would remove the markings from [Eugene Denizard’s restoration in] 1809, and also the 17th century lacquer. I think that this would reveal Da Vinci’s original intentions in their entirety and lead to a new understanding of the work.” It’s an incidental conversation that Montavalon intends as a kind of test for Cecile, his former student, but it also makes clear that Snowbébé and Arrieta’s shared obsession with escaping time through art is facile. Both Montvalon and Cecille acknowledge that the Mona Lisa is not the original painting because the alterations have changed our relationship with it in ways we cannot realize. Restoration is a necessary act to insure that future generations are not robbed of arts power but it’s also paradoxically an act that changes the nature of those artifacts and so our relationship with it. There is nothing timeless to these works no matter how powerful the pull they exert through the ages: they are as prone to deterioration as any of us; even the act of preservation fundamentally alters them so that it becomes impossible to talk of them as if a thing of eternity. Snowbébé and Arrieta may believe they’ve found solace from a world of death and decay (Snowbébé routinely describes it as “cold and smelly”) inside a painting but they would have done well to pay attention to its title, or to the fact that it’s soon to undergo restoration, itself a form of death.
And yet Matsumoto is careful that none of this is should be conveyed to Snowbébé and have no direct impact on his decision to abandon The Funeral Procession of Love or, ultimately, the Louvre. His revelation instead comes through spectral encounters with Sawtooth and the spider he ate earlier even he doesn’t quite grasp the significance of; when trying to convince Arrieta to return with him he ends up asking himself “…why do I want to go back?” There’s an element of mystery, of subconscious development outside easy explanation in Snowbébé’s final decision that -- blessedly -- prevents it from becoming another in an eternal line of wagging fingers. Matsumoto’s interest isn’t in judging these characters for our benefit but in exploring art’s power by their interactions with one another. Certainly he holds no judgment for the other cats of the Louvre, who continue on in their odd ways even as one of their number gives birth to a litter of kittens she regards as more of a nuisance than a duty. Nor over the human cast, who may have gained closure or affirmation but remain fundamentally unchanged. For all it tackles Cats of the Louvre is a slight story that finds its observations interesting but unworthy of grand gesture.
It is not a shallow story for this, unconcerned with larger questions, but one that recognizes too much ambition might be to its detriment. It can be frustrating because of that at times, feeling less weighty than certain scenes might demand even when the overall narrative benefits from this deliberate choice to stay flighty. Emotional developments can feel coy, tragedies and violence more aestheticized than they should; the same playfulness that saves it becoming a slog too often leaves Cats feeling airy, insubstantial. There’s a sophomoric quality to Matsumoto’s musing on aesthetics that don’t betray ignorance but frivolity, don’t suggest stupidity as much as they do distracted playfulness; Matsumoto is so finely tuned to the appeal and the history of art that one might wish he would devote these pages to an uncompromising investigation of the same. And yet what is best in Cats of the Louvre is this ability to dance lightly over and around subjects that we too readily endow with timeless importance. Veneration might elevate art to the sphere of the immortal but in doing so it removes it from our own weighty, material world; we need artists like Matsumoto and books like Cats of the Louvre to bat art around like a tabby with a ball of yarn the better to see that it’s a toy, here to be played with, engaged with, unraveled and then put back together so we might view it from every angle.