February 15, 2006

Three paintings of cats

I bought a card in the National Gallery yesterday, in honour of the cat which it depicts.

The cat is a detail from Willem van Mieris' A Woman And Fish-Pedlar In A Kitchen, or the painting itself is a detail in the depiction of the cat: while the painting itself may centre on a basket,

my attention centred firmly on the cat.

The cat itself has her attention on the bird whose neck is hanging over the edge. (I think it is a she: the plumpness may suggest a tom, but the colour suggests otherwise, and I've met quite a few she-cats plump enough to pass the test of size.) The colour of the cat is beautiful: but the cat itself is not quite right.

There's always been a shortage of good cats in art. One notices this almost immediately in the National Gallery: so many paintings are bucolic in theme, or depict people who wish to show their relationship to the land, that dogs have a clear advantage. The artist depicts hunters:

where there are hunters, there are dogs.

So there are not very many cats in art, and well-realised cats are few and far between: assuming you can see the elusive cat at all. (I am sure I saw a cat in the attic in Bosch's Adoration Of The Magi

when I saw it just a couple of years ago: but either my memory is failing or my eyesight cannot detect the creature any more.)

Van Mieris' cat is, as I say, beautiful but not quite right. She does not have quite the poise of a cat, even a chubby one: she is a little too solid, a little too inclined to look but not to try and touch. The bird is well within reach: where a dog might merely enquire, a cat would reach out, jump, claw for her prize, walk round in circles, plead, wail, try again, and if rebuffed, would glare and prowl and sulk. But our cat here is just a little quizzical: a little too human, or even canine, rather than catching completely the essence of the cat.

Hogarth, on the other hand, overdoes it just a little.

His cat, as we might expect, is after the bird: but makes it too obvious, lets his presence be known, scowls and snarls at his target rather than approaching it with quiet, cunning and dexterity. Of course, in a cage, the bird is probably beyond his reach: but if it came to scowling and snarling it would come after the cat had made his play, not while he cased the joint from behind a chair. Hogarth is a theatrical painter and exaggerates for an effect he usually achieves: but cats are subtle, it is no small part of their capacity to enchant, and I would have thought it too theatrical a cat.

Of the three cats I saw (after a while, ones going looking for them), it is Manet who captures best his cat, and it is no surprise to learn that Manet himself had a cat, Zizi, who was the model for the painting.

She is a fantastic cat, perfectly realised in form and character, splendid in her isolation, entirely self-absorbed. She accepts Mme Manet's stroking without complaint but also without acknowledgement, each of them benefitting from the other's presence but each, at the same time, devoted to their own thoughts.

If it were painted today you would have guessed Suzanne Manet was watching the television: as it is she seems distracted, unable perhaps to give her full attention to the cat. But Zizi gives her full attention to herself. One imagines her tail flicking, occasionally, from side to side, to aid her meditation, until without warning she makes up her mind and jumps down from Madame Manet's lap to go about her business.

Woman With A Cat? Though Edouard Manet was not really in a position to say so, it is Cat With A Woman, the world looking at Zizi, or looking at the world as Zizi sees it. I bought a card depicitng the cat as painted by van Mieris, and she is quite a cat: but Zizi is a cat among cats, le chat des chats. I cannot keep my silence in the presence of a cat: and I cannot see Manet's painting of Zizi without saying, out loud for all to hear:
What a cat! What a cat!

February 14, 2006

Sign of the times

I watched the Ryanair documentary last night, not least because I take their flights to and from Zaragoza: therefore I want to know everything about them that I really didn't want to know. What I got was what I expected to get: basic safety and security checks neglected, basic training skimped and bypassed, in general everything done in the shoddiest of fashions by undertrained and underinterested staff because there was no time and no encouragement to do it any other way.

I've taken, occasionally, over the past few years, to watching television with the subtitles on, partly in case the phone rings and I need to turn the volume off, partly because I have convinced myself that now I'm in my forties, my hearing is falling apart like a secondhand plane from Aeroflot.

I needn't have bothered: I could barely make out what the subtitles were saying. Not because of my (no doubt) failing eyesight but because spellings were wrong, incorrect words provided, sentences produced that neither followed the rules of grammar nor made linguistic sense. In short, everything about them suggested that subtitles were produced in the shoddiest of fashions by undertrained and underinterested staff because there was no time and no encouragement to do it any other way.

February 08, 2006

The bodies of Christ

I return from Catholic Spain in the middle of a worldwide conflict between the various Peoples of the Book as to which of them are more (or less) civilised than the others. Naturally, such a question can only be settled by the more civilised parties treating their less civilised rivals in as uncivilised a fashion as they can - on the principle of doing it to them before they do it, but worse, to us. But why stop at that? I had a boiled egg this morning: Swift might well have advised me to be careful at which end I broke it, lest I accidentally be mistaken for a member of the heretical Big-Endian camp instead of the theologically correct Little-Endian position to which I have adhered all my egg-eating life.

Spain, of course, has never really recovered from the overthrow of Muslim sovereignty in that part of the world: since the fall of Granada it has suffered Inquisition, decay and Fascism, with the Roman Catholic Church the common link. Not much happier the land of Christianity's older brother, in which the Jewish state lives by and is built on the principle of killing, encircling, expelling, imprisoning, dispossessing and repressing those people of the region who are not Jewish.

Such was - with only the names being changed - the intention of the Christians of the Republike Srpska, with regard to their neighbours, neighbours of all backgrounds but led by a Muslim President and a Muslim party, in the state of Bosnia. We are currently being encouraged to agree that Christians, unlike Muslims, do not burn down embassies in pursuit of their religious fears hatreds. Indeed not - they are capable of burning down whole countries, as the Orthodox Christians tried to do to Bosnia. In the case of Orthodox Russia with regard to Muslim Chechnya, they do so on a regular basis.

In doing so, they are not restrained (though not, perhaps, encouraged quite as much as Israel) by the Christians in power in London and Washington. Which latter government, when headed by the devout Christian administration of Ronald Reagan, provided many guns and many dollars so that equally devout death squad members in Central America could slaughter many tens of thousands of their fellow citizens in the name of Jesus Christ. These particular butchers were Catholics, which Reagan and his friends were not. An admirably ecumenical effort.

Not that the Muslims are always on the receiving end, as demonstrated by the world's largest Muslim country, the Islamic Republic of Indonesia, where the coup of 1966, perhaps the bloodiest in history, involved the slaughter of their political and religious opponents by Muslim mobs aided by the police and army. Nearly ten years later they went to largely Christian East Timor and carried out a slaughter just as bloody - supported, on the quiet, by Britain, the US and Australia, the latter two, countries formed by the Christian genocide of non-Christian peoples. Cries for help from their fellow-religionists went unheard. Prompting us perhaps - as one might when contemplating the Six Counties of Northern Ireland - to observe, with Julian the Apostate:
How these Christians love one another!

February 07, 2006

Life sentence

The prison in Huesca is closed. I walked past it earlier today and it was silent: silent and still. I wasn't sure at first, since that is precisely the impression that a prison likes to give, but when I asked I was told, yes, the prison was closed and its fate was still being discussed - whether it should be a supermarket, or some kind of leisure complex, or whatever other use the building could be turned to.

Whatever it is would surely be an improvement on a prison, just as a prison that is closed must surely be an improvement on a prison that is open. In London, I imagine, they might squat a building such as that: thereby respecting the principle whereby prisons are usually the place where homeless people find their destination.

Rare to find a prison that is closed in England: we cannot find enough places to put the people we lock up. But they did close Oxford prison, towards the end of the fifteen years I lived in that city, the prime location of the jail no doubt influencing the decision to terminate its history as a penal institution. A shame, from no point of view other than my own: I used to walk close to the prison to visit a favourite pub not far away. When I did so it was often possible to come across some women, wives and girlfriends of the inmates, just by the bank of the Thames on the ironically-named Paradise Street, shouting messages to their men from a point beyond the walls. I rather liked to watch them as I passed.

One evening I saw a family of ducks - which creatures, as I understand it, mate for life - swimming along the river by the point at which the women used to stand. For a minute or two the drake mislaid his wife and chicks and panicked, circling round, flapping and quacking as he went - until he found them again, landed among them on the water and they swam off together. Some bonds are stronger than governments and laws.

February 01, 2006

Lightning does not strike twice

I found a fiver on the way to the pub last night. On the pavement, right in the middle of the pavement as it happens, practically standing on edge asking to be picked up. Fresh, perhaps fresh from the cashpoint at the crossroads of which the pub constitutes one quarter and the cashpoint another: straight but curved, straight up but curved along its length, as though it had been folded but not for long enough to be reconciled to it. I pocketed it: I looked around to see if anybody had dropped it and I even looked around for the cameras in case it was a stunt for television. But it was dark, and half-past ten. I doubt a fiver coud have been there since it was light.

Even in London, five pounds will buy you a couple of pints, which was as much as I had in mind. I walked to the bar, to order the first of these two, and as I did so I saw a pound coin on the floor. Unbelievable. This was my evening! That would pay for peanuts and crisps as well. I ordered my pint and slid my boot gently over the coin before dropping to the floor to pick it up under the guise of doing up my laces.

The coin had been glued to the floor.