A Century of Moshe Moshi in Art


I admit, the post title is a bit deceiving. This has nothing specifically to do with the Moshi Monster, but there is the tiniest of connection (give me a break, I had to come up with a catchy title, and I've only had one cup of coffee this morning...). People often ask me about Moshe Moshi's name. It's a long, complicated story I won't bore you with, but part of it came from one of my Japanese cousins remembering a song she would sing as a child; ♪Moshi Moshi, and one...♫.

Japan has an incredible reverence and love of cats, although the history varies on why. I recently heard of an exhibit "Life of Cats" at the Japan Society in NYC (come on AMTRAK and write that pet policy so Moshe Moshi and I can ride up more often). This is a reprint of the NYTimes.com article dated March 12, 2015, by Ken Johnson.

Cats are strange. Aloof, elegant and always clean, they radiate Buddha-like equanimity and spiritual superiority. A cat will gaze intently into your eyes and then look away as if you were not of the slightest interest. They can be maddeningly passive-aggressive opportunists and zany clowns, as attested to by countless, stratospherically popular YouTube videos of cats behaving badly and ridiculously. (See, for example, YouTube cats knocking things off tables.) “Life of Cats: Selections From the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection,” an exhibition at Japan Society, should be catnip for cat lovers; all the better if visitors are into art, too. It presents 86 drawings, paintings, woodblock prints and decorative objects dating from the 17th to the early 20th century. It was organized by Miwako Tezuka, Director of Japan Society, who selected its contents mainly from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation collection of Tokyo.

Some catophiles might be disappointed, like many works in the show feature cats only as minor figures in scenes of human activity or as printed motifs on clothing. In some works, like “A Black Cat Under a Tree” (1915), a painting on sliding cedar doors by Niwayama Koen (1869-1942), the little black cat licking one arm in the lower part is less captivating than the lovingly described leafy branches above. There are prints made for children in which cats dance and frolic, but few pieces in the show get at how weird and funny they can be in their typical, everyday behaviors. You don’t get the impression that the Japanese of the Edo period (1615-1868) and the half-century after were as crazed about cats as Internet culture suggests we are today. That said, it’s a beautiful show.

Cats arrived in Japan from China in the mid-sixth century, supposedly via a ship carrying sacred Buddhist scriptures. Adopted as pets and valued for their rat-killing skills, they naturally infiltrated Japanese art, literature, and folklore. A typically feline pose is captured in Utagawa Hiroshige’s color woodblock print “Asakusa Ricefields and Torinomachi Festival” (1857), in which a white cat on a windowsill gazes out over a landscape where a crowd of people has gathered in the distance. Nearly life-size and rendered with exquisite sensitivity in gray washes, “Meditating Cat With Kyoka Poem” (late 17th century) by Hozobo Shinkai pictures a fat sitting tabby facing forward in a state, it seems, of sublime contentment. Another instantly recognizable feline behavior is depicted with remarkable anatomical realism in a woodblock print by Takahashi Hiroaki called “Cat Prowling Around a Staked Tomato Plant” (1931), in which a black and white cat with wide-open yellow eyes sinuously stalks unseen prey.

The prowling cat appears in one of the exhibition’s five sections, “Cats Transformed: Imagination and Realism,” in which some of the most impressive works depict not house cats but big ones like lions and tigers. In Yoshimura Kokei’s large, technically marvelous ink and watercolor painting “Dragon and Tiger” (1836), a curiously cuddly tiger stands on dainty paws on a mountainside with a serpentine dragon emerging from swirling mist in the background. If this cute beast seems to lack the range muscularity of real tigers, it’s for a good reason: Big cats were not native to Japan, so artists resorted to domestic cats as models.

In the show’s first section, “Cats and People,” are pictures of sumptuously garbed courtesans with their pets. Some picture the inordinate affection humans often bestow on them, as in Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 1888 woodblock print of a woman in full regalia curling herself around a white cat. But the show’s only explicitly erotic image (in the “Cats Transformed” section) is Takahashi Hiroaki’s “Nude Playing With a Cat” (circa 1927-30), in which a naked young woman dangles a scarf before an attentive kitten.

The second section, “Cats as People,” focuses on a centuries-old tradition of representing comically anthropomorphized animals called Giga. Mid-19th-century prints here represent fully dressed, bipedal, human-feline hybrids enacting scenes from popular theatrical entertainments of the time. These include a pair of group portraits of recognizable famous actors with pointy ears, whiskers and patterned fur by Utagawa Yoshiiku.

As in the West, where they consort with witches and can bring bad luck, cats have a dark side in Japanese folk culture. The show’s third section, “Cats Versus People,” pertains to the figure of the Bake Neko, or, cat monster. Among the exhibition’s most formally complex works are action-packed prints by two different 19th-century artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kuniteru, that illustrate stories involving such an evil creature. In several pieces of their works, humans carry on in the foreground as a giant, snarling cat faces loom malevolently in the backgrounds. On the other hand, cats can be auspicious. Consider the Maneki Neko, or “beckoning cat” — also known as “lucky cat” — the rotund, big-eyed little figure with the raised paw that greets customers in many Asian shops. Two examples are on view, one a thumb-size ceramic figure from the late 19th or early 20th century; the other is a bit larger and upholstered in silk from the early 1900s. They are ancestors of the globally popular character “Hello Kitty,” who was born in 1974, too late to be included in this show. Sequel anyone?

“Life of Cats” continues through June 7 at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, Manhattan; 212-832-1155, japansociety.org. A version of this review appears in print on March 13, 2015, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: YouTube Darlings Have Long History in Japan’s Art

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