Cool cats

Felines take center-stage at an intriguing comics exhibition, providing insight into the ‘cat-human yin-yang balance.’

Eitan Eloa’s singular take on all things feline feeds off the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Brave Little Tailor’ fairy tale (photo credit: EITAN ELOA)
Eitan Eloa’s singular take on all things feline feeds off the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Brave Little Tailor’ fairy tale
(photo credit: EITAN ELOA)
Cats mean different things to different people. People frequently describe themselves as “cat lovers” or “dog lovers,” and the twain very rarely meet. But what is indisputable is the fact that creatures of the now domesticated feline species have been stars for eons.
“Cats have intrigued human beings ever since they first encountered them,” notes Michal Paz-Klapp. “Look at the ancient Egyptians. They worshiped cats. In Medieval times, they associated cats with witches and with all sorts of magic.”
Paz-Klapp has a vested interest in the furry animals on both a personal and an artistic level. She is the curator of the “Kishta! The Image of the Cat in Israeli Comics” exhibition currently on display at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. (Note: Kishta means “Scat!”) The compact show includes works by such leading lights of the Israeli comics art community as Dudu Geva, Omer Hoffman, Uri Fink and Eitan Eloa. One of the best-known Israeli comics creators is Belgian-born Michel Kichka, and he was largely responsible for instigating the Holon display. The exhibition revolves around a book he published last year as part of Holon’s 75th anniversary celebrations. The book is titled Hofit and Alon in the Footsteps of Meshi Who Got Lost in Holon.
Celebrated cartoonist Uri Fink takes a look at streetwise cats, and street cats and their domesticated counterparts (photo credit: URI FINK)Celebrated cartoonist Uri Fink takes a look at streetwise cats, and street cats and their domesticated counterparts (photo credit: URI FINK)
According to the curator, as a nation we have a fascination with cats.
“We have cats in our homes, there are loads of cats on the street, and we generally see someone who devotes a lot of their time, and cash, to feeding stray cats near our buildings. Cats are everywhere,” she says.
Zvika Roland and Yuval Caspi’s Abarbanel cartoon strip cats take contrasting views of the Jewish holidays (photo credit: ZVIKA ROLAND/YUVAL CASPI)Zvika Roland and Yuval Caspi’s Abarbanel cartoon strip cats take contrasting views of the Jewish holidays (photo credit: ZVIKA ROLAND/YUVAL CASPI)
Paz-Klapp notes that there is a feminine connotation to boot.
“Cats are identified with women’s sexuality – a cat in heat and all that – and people also talk about a mother in terms of a lioness protecting her cubs.”
Felines also lend themselves to a wide array of visual depiction.
“They can be fat and hedonistic like Garfield. On the other hand, they can tough battle-weary street cats,” says the curator, who staunchly defends cats from accusations of wanton destructive tendencies. “It’s true that cats can ruin your furniture, but they only do that when they’re kittens. Puppies do that and, mind you, so do we humans when we’re little. Then we all calm down.”
While Paz-Klapp is clearly taken with cats on a personal level too, Kichka takes a more professional approach.
“I’m not particularly crazy about cars, but you see them all over the place,” he says. “When I am in Israel I will always draw cats because they are always around – unlike in England or France.”
Besides its endearing entertainment value, the Hofit and Alon publication is clearly a pretext for taking youngsters on a virtual trip around Holon.
“That’s what attracted the curator to having this kind of exhibition,” says Kichka, adding that he isn’t the first artist to be drawn to the alluring features of felines. “There are loads of great cat characters. It is an animal that has a strong personality.”
The artist also feels that animals in general are a boon for his professional cohorts and allows them to convey all sorts of ideas with a safety net.
“Animals are an excellent means for saying something about people in an indirect and sophisticated way,” he points out.
That applies in particular to the Holon exhibition centerpiece.
“A lot of people connect with cats because of their character and natural impudence and their ability to charm you but also to challenge and irritate you,” he says.
Paz-Klapp fully subscribes to Kichka’s observation about the cat-human yin and yang balance.
“I think we can learn about human nature by the way we treat cats,” she says, adding that there is plenty of common ground behind feline and human behavior. “These days, people laud individualism and the ‘me’ in the world and all that. So that makes people connect so strongly with the cat.
And cats are really cool.”
That’s a generally accepted ethos.
And the “cool” and “cat” tandem is, of course, used to convey the idea that someone has a particularly self-assured air. Jazz musicians are certainly cognizant of the desirable properties displayed by members of the feline species.
In jazz parlance, “cat” is synonymous with musicians – generally sidemen – with the inference being that they are very adept at their job. That positive attribute and many more are front and center in the Holon exhibition.
Hoffman captures the very essence of the laid-back, eternally unruffled nature of cats in his cartoon of a suitably furry creature slowly but surely giving in to the heat, as it lies on top of wall under a baking sun. Presumably, anything but a super “cool” creature would make the event to find some shade, but not our ever-lovable and super-relaxed feline friend.
The Zvika Rosen-Yuval Caspi Abarbanel cartoon strip places that sangfroid trait in even sharper focus, although Nimrod Reshef’s contribution shows that cats don’t always get what they want.
Nimrod Reshef shows that cats don’t always get their own way (photo credit: NIMROD RESHEF)Nimrod Reshef shows that cats don’t always get their own way (photo credit: NIMROD RESHEF)
Paz-Klapp also notes that through the ages, artists have tended to imbue the animal with human characteristics.
“Cats appear in art as creatures that are capable of sophisticated thinking, and the artists that add words to their drawings put their own words into the cat’s mouth. The artists humanize cats in order to convey some idea or thought,” she says.
That can also include some pretty venomous vitriol.
“You see humanized cats in American comics and caricatures – but not just in the US – where the artist uses them, for instance, to criticize politicians,” the curator observes.
In fact, there’s nothing new i n that. Take, for example, the cartoons in Punch, the British satirical periodical.
Even back in Victorian times, artists took unbridled pot shots at the celebrities of the day, including politicians and even members of the royal family, by parodying them as cats and other animals, and not particularly successful or impressive creatures at that.
Cats have also come in for a bit of a battering from time to time, and some artists have exploited some of their less tasteful attributes to portray unsavory types. That was most famously done in Jewish American cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed Maus graphic novel, which was serialized from 1980 to 1991.
Maus depicts Spiegelman interviewing his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The work employs postmodern techniques and represents Jews as mice, and Germans and Poles as cats and pigs. In 1992 Maus became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Interestingly, in 2012 Kichka also addressed the scars of his own father’s Holocaust experiences when he put out his own first graphic novel, Second Generation.
Felix the Cat was a popular character from the moment it burst onto the US cartoon scene in 1919; and lasagna- loving Garfield gained similar instant adoration when the Jim Davis creation hit the comics stands. And back in the wild and woolly 1960s, Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat displayed far more adult tendencies, to the delight of many, both in the original comics form and later in the avant-garde animated film version which quickly built up an enduring cult following.
As far as Paz-Klapp is concerned, cats should be heralded and celebrated across the board.
“We all love cats, don’t we? It is basic to our national culture. I think the cat should be added to the hoopoe [bird] as our national emblem.”
That is a mite beyond the “Kishta! The Image of the Cat in Israeli Comics” exhibition purview, but you get the point.

The exhibition is on display until January 14 at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. For more information: (03) 652-1849 and www.cartoon.org.il.