‘I can’t think of any other artist who has captured the catness of a cat’

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Pierre Bonnard’s depictions of cats vary thrillingly across his body of work – there are cats at play, and cats at rest, cats rendered in loving detail and cats evoked with a few brief brushstrokes – but none of them are quite as wonderful, or as strange, as Le Chat Blanc (The White Cat).

Le Chat Blanc (1894) by Pierre BonnardCredit: Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The painting is currently on show in Melbourne as part of an expansive survey of Bonnard’s work.

It’s the kind of painting that grabs you with its oddness. The cat’s expression is inscrutable. Its tail forms a near perfect question mark. The more you look at it, the more layers of peculiarity accrue. Why is the cat’s head so compact, while its neck is practically non-existent? What’s with its weird body-to-leg-length ratio? And why does it appear to be hovering a few centimetres above the ground?

“I think that this is the best representation of a cat in the history of art,” says Ted Gott, senior curator of international art at the NGV.

For Gott, the painting captures are certain kind of feline ambivalence that gets to the fundamental essence of a cat. “Is the cat bristling because it’s upset with us? Or is it actually up on its legs with utter delight and it’s got its little eyes closed because it’s purring?”

According to Gott, Bonnard was influenced by Japanese art during the period he painted Le Chat Blanc, and the cat’s strange, elongated form may have been inspired by prints of Japanese ghosts and demons.

“I think that this is the best representation of a cat in the history of art.”

This makes sense – if you’ve ever seen a cat puff up to double its size, or ooze through a tight space as though it had no bones at all, you know how utterly uncanny they can be.

Le Chat Blanc is one of those paintings that people remember even if they don’t know who painted it. It reliably goes viral online. But seeing it in person delivers a whole new level of joy. Such is its power that one visitor at the member’s preview spent three full hours communing with it (she said she planned to come back and look at the rest of the show on another visit).

What is it about this cat that inspires such delight in its viewers?

“It’s a perfect representation of a cat being a cat,” says Gott. “You could get a more realistic-looking cat, you could get a more beautiful-looking cat – but I can’t think of any other artist who has captured the catness of a cat.”

Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi is on at NGV until October 8.

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