Picture Piece

The cats of Louis Wain

The cheerful tabbies that Louis Wain painted early in his career as a children’s book illustrator in the 1880s may be the closest thing the Edwardians had to Lolcats. But over the decades Wain spent in treatment for schizophrenia at Bethlem and Napsbury Hospitals in London, his cats became dazzlingly fractal and nebulous. There’s some debate today about whether his style changed because he truly lost the ability to see things as healthy people see them, or whether the narrative of an increasingly unbound paintbrush reflecting an increasingly unbound mind is just a product of selective curation by subsequent psychiatrists and critics. But maybe it doesn’t matter. For me, the transition from Wain’s early work to his almost unrecognizable later work is compelling because it appears systematic in the way that natural processes are systematic: it has the inexorable logic of a mould spreading or a galaxy exploding. In other words, it doesn’t look to me as if  Wain is painting the same cat in a changing style, but rather a changing cat in the same style — his eye is as sober as ever, and it’s the universe around him that has become delirious. In Wain, we see not only the seed of chaos in every line an artist puts down, but also the seed of chaos in every material object. I only wish there were a confirmed verdict on the single most haunting theory about his decline: that his schizophrenia was caused by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic brain infection that he could have contracted from the very cats he once used as models.

Ned Beauman is a novelist based in London, UK. His most recent books are Glow (2014) and Madness Is Better than Defeat (2017).

Issue 2

First published in Issue 2

October 2013

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