Francesca Consagra on In the Company of Cats and Dogs

Takahashi Hiroaki (Shotei), Published by Fusui Gabo,
Cat Prowling Around a Staked Tomato Plant, 1931
Woodblock print, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Gift of Stephanie Hamilton in memory of Leslie A. Hamilton

To introduce our new exhibition,  In the Company of Cats and Dogs, curator Francesca Consagra shares a preview of the show and what visitors can expect to encounter.

This week, our exhibition In the Company of Cats and Dogs opens and it provides a wonderful opportunity: the enjoyment of looking at amazing works of art depicting cats and dogs by such important artists as Louise Bourgeois, Pieter Brueghel, Albrecht Durer, Paul Gauguin, Francisco Goya, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Pablo Picasso, Jan Weenix, and Andrew Wyeth. Also on display are beautiful works from Ancient Egypt, third-century China and Mexico, and some of YouTube’s most popular cat videos. That is a surprising mix, no? It is because we want to explore the profoundly different ways that people have perceived and interacted with cats and dogs, and how these attitudes have changed over time.

As the curator of the exhibition, I encourage you to look closely at the art, to read the labels and wall texts, and to listen to the audio guide in the hopes that you will begin to think more about the roles that cats and dogs play in your own life and culture.  We collaborated with faculty and students at the University of Texas at Austin, who study the interactions between human and non-human animals. The exhibition’s wall texts, audio guide, and labels discuss a wide range of topics, including the psychological, cultural, and biological underpinnings of human attachments to cats and dogs, to which the artists themselves may have been responding.

David Bates
David Bates, The Whittler, 1983, Oil on canvas, Michener Acquisitions Fund, 1983.

Some works in the exhibition, for instance, demonstrate anthropomorphism, the desire to give human form and characteristics to objects and animals. They also reveal a tendency to associate cats with women and dogs with men, and the inclination to connect these two animals with the beginning and the end of human life. We discuss how the rise of Christianity ushered in an era of unusual suspicion and the maltreatment of cats and dogs up until the thirteenth century.  Then, dogs began to be rendered more as loyal companions, healers, and signifiers of a person’s high moral and social status. Cats, on the other hand, remained mostly symbols of evil, cruelty, and sin in European art well into the eighteenth century. We also consider how the empathy-governing hormone oxytocin is produced in response to contact with our companion animals. When you pet your dog, a recent study concluded, both human and animal oxytocin levels increase, and numerous works in the exhibition offer a glimpse into the empathy and affection that the artists themselves felt for their cats and dogs.

Near the end of the exhibition, you will find a resource room organized by Ray Williams, Director of Education and Academic Affairs. This room features a slideshow of Austin’s pets, children’s books, and other readings that may help you think about pet ownership and care. The Blanton has also organized some great events, so keep an eye on the museum’s Facebook and Twitter pages for announcements throughout the summer.

We look forward to seeing you soon!

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