The Worcester Art Museum’s New Exhibit Is All Cats, All the Time

New art exhibit will trace humans’ captivation with cats throughout history

"Head of Cat," Egyptian, Eleventh Dynasty. Courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum
"Woman with a Cat," 1864, by Gustave Courbet. Courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum
"Cat and Mice," 1975, by Robert A. Nelson. Robert A. Nelson, via the Worcester Art Museum
"Meditation and Minou," 1980, by Will Barnet. Will Barnet Trust/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
"The Cat," a 1657 engraving by Cornelis de Visscher. Courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum
The "purr-formers" in Rhonda Lieberman’s "Cats-in-Residence" are all adoptable. Brica Wilcox
Rhonda Lieberman’s “purr-formance piece” "Cats-in-Residence" features live cats. Lisa Anne Auerbach
"Untitled (Girl with Cat and Tiles)," 20th century, by Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita. 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Thanks to the Internet, it can sometimes seem like cats have taken over every aspect of popular culture. Funny videos and goofy photos may be firmly under their furry paws, but now not even fine art seems to be able to resist their feline allure. Now, Massachusetts’ Worcester Art Museum is hosting a new exhibition dedicated to cats in art from ancient Egypt all the way up to the modern day.

Cat memes might seem like a modern phenomenon, but the expressive animals have intrigued artists for thousands of years. Cats have been memorialized in art dating back to ancient Egypt and China, as well as in paintings, prints, and of course, videos, Cait Munro writes for artnet News. Recently, cats have appeared everywhere, featured in a painting that sold for $826,000 at auction, in a proposal for decorating a new overpass in San Francisco, and even, briefly, blowing up Times Square's iconic billboards.

"Cats have given rise to a plethora of creative online projects, videos, and memes that mix humor and artistry. While the Internet has allowed for viral consumption of the content, this phenomenon isn't new," Adam Rozan, the museum’s director of audience engagement, said in a statement. "The playful and mischievous natures of cats have inspired artists for ages."

The upcoming exhibit, aptly titled Meow: A Cat-Inspired Exhibition, explores the cat’s iconic role as artistic muse from throughout art history and up to the modern day through a series of exhibitions and events. The series includes an exhibit called The Captivating Cat: Felines and the Artist’s Gaze, which features more than 70 pieces of cat-inspired art from the Worcester Art Museum’s collection alone, a self-guided “Cat Walk” tour, and an exhibition dedicated to Hot Topic mascot and goth icon Emily the Strange, Joshua Lyford writes for Worcester Magazine.

“I think cats appeal to people in a way that not all things do,” Rozan tells Lyford. “It’s a whole culture and language. I think it will appeal to people in a variety of ways.”

The museum won’t just feature art inspired by and depicting cats: it will also host an exhibition of artist and critic Rhonda Lieberman’s “purr-formance piece” Cats-in-Residence, which casts cute (and very adoptable) cats as performers, Munro writes. While the exhibition may seem a little flippant to some, guest curator Ruth Dibble takes the cat’s role as artistic muse very seriously.

“This exhibition breaks from traditional feline-centric scholarship by looking at cats not simply as subjects that artists depicted in diverse media across time and place, but rather as iconic muses with their own, distinctly animalistic, agency,” Dibble says in a statement. “...there is a sense that being a cat is a lot like being an artist. Both are at once at a remove from the world, yet also consuming it through watchful eyes. It raises the possibility that cats influence, rather than only reflect, artistic intention.”

Meow: A Cat-Inspired Exhibition will run at the Worcester Art Museum from May 21 through September 4, 2016.

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