Acid Cats

Louis-Wain-Cat Design
Louis Wain-Cat Design

Although Louis Wain’s psychedelic and abstract cat designs that he created during the last fifteen years of his life, while confined in a  psychiatric institution, show many of the hallmarks that characterise Art Brut, namely elaborate detailing, obsessive symmetry and the horror vacui (fear of empty space); he was formally trained and was for a number of years one of the foremost commercial artists of Edwardian England, illustrating over a hundred books and releasing a highly successful annual of cats for over a decade.

Cats were Wain’s main subject throughout his career, from the naturalistic early studies through the large-eyed anthropomorphic cats strolling around on two legs playing golf and smoking cigars at the height of his success, to the brilliant ceramic Futurist cats before the final period of hallucinated decorative splendour.

The affectation and centrality that cats held for Wain was born out of a personal tragedy. At 23 the young artist had married his sister’s governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten years older, which was the cause of considerable scandal at the time. Shortly into their marriage Emily began to suffer from breast cancer; during her illness her main source of solace and comfort came from Peter, a stray black and white cat they had rescued on a rainy night. At Emily’s urging Louis began sketching Peter, drawings that were soon published and made Wain an very much in-demand illustrator, an event Emily unfortunately didn’t live to see.

Although Louis Wain’s work was hugely popular he lacked financial acumen so when he was initially institutionalised in 1924 it was in the pauper’s ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, South London. When it was discovered that one of England’s most beloved illustrators was languishing there, a widely publicised appeal was launched and supported by such figures as the writer H.G Wells and the Prime Minister, and he was transferred to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, London and eventually to the relatively pleasant Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, which had a large garden and a colony of cats.

The actual nature of Wain’s mental illness is the matter of debate, it has been suggested either adult-onset schizophrenia or Asperger’s Syndrome. His work was presented in supposedly chronological order by the psychiatrist Walter Maclay as an example of the creative deterioration of schizophrenics; a specious narrative that needless to say I totally disagree with. The abstractions represent a different, experimental aspect of Wain’s cat oeuvre, not a decline.

Below are examples of Wain’s cat drawings from throughout his career, with greater emphasis on the acid cats of the later period.

Art Brut II

Blue Birds in the Tree-Scottie Wilson ca 1960
Blue Birds in the Tree-Scottie Wilson ca 1960

One of my more popular posts, and a piece that I have a special fondness for is Art Brut, which highlighted the work of visionary/outsider artists without formal training, many of whom were institutionalised for mental illness. This was followed shortly after by tangentially related posts on The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace and the Acid Cats of Louis Wain, again pieces I am quite tender about,  if only because I got to indulge my penchant for purple prose (anyone for a spot of hallucinated decorative splendour?), while showcasing truly exceptional art and architecture.

So after a delayed interval, (a butterfly for a mind), here are more artists driven by an urgent inner necessity to create intensely luminous works of art.

Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern

Born in East Prussia (now Russia) Friedrich Schroder was sent to a juvenile delinquent facility at the age of 14 and was committed to an asylum at 17. During the 1920’s he founded a cult, though any money raised went to feeding the destitute ruined by the hyper-inflation of the time. In 1930 he was institutionalised again for debt and working as a conman, posing as Dr Eliot Gnass von Sonnenstern (Sun Star). It was during this period that he met an artist who encouraged him to draw. During WWII he spent further time in prison and labour camps. Friedrich’s allegorical drawings and paintings ladened with erotic symbolism was lauded by the artist and critic Jean Dubuffet, the man responsible for coining the phrase Art Brut.

Schonwarsia Mondmarchen-Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern 1954
Schonwarsia Mondmarchen-Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern-1954
The-Demoness-of-Urgency-Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern-1958
The-Demoness-of-Urgency-Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern 1958
The Moon-Moralistic Veneration of the Artist's Bones - Friedrich Schröder- Sonnenstern
The Moon-Moralistic Veneration of the Artist’s Bones – Friedrich Schröder- Sonnenstern

Consuelo González Amezcua

Born in Mexico, Consuelo (Chelo) Amezcua moved to Del Rio, Texas at the age of five where she was remain for the rest of her life, working at the local department store selling candy. She won a scholarship to study art in Mexico City but her father died, leading her to forfeit the scholarship so that she could remain with her family. Known locally as an eccentric, her family paid little interest in her drawings and poetry (which is frequently incorporated in her art), though at the age of 65 she was the subject of her first exhibition. Chelo’s work is characterised by biblical imagery, Mexican folklore and stunning filigree decorative motifs.

McNay Art Institute and Chelo-Consuelo) Gonzalez Amezcuacirca 1967
McNay Art Institute and Chelo-Consuelo Gonzalez Amezcua circa 1967
The_Prophecy-Consuelo González Amezcua 1966
The_Prophecy-Consuelo González Amezcua 1966
Consuelo (Chelo) Gonzalez Amezcua
Consuelo (Chelo) Gonzalez Amezcua

Joseph E.Yoakum

Jospeh E.Yoakum was born in Missouri of African-American, Cherokee and French descent. He joined the circus at nine and worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show which toured Europe between 1903 to 1906. He served in France during WWI. After the war he travelled throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, working on railroads and as a seaman. Joseph settled in the Southside of Chicago in the late 1920’s, working at various occupations including carpenter, janitor and mechanic. At the age of 72 he was inspired by a dream to start making art, calling it ‘spiritual unfoldment’. During the last decade of his life he produced thousands of anthropomorphic landscapes inspired by his extensive travels.

Near Naples. Italy-Joseph E. Yoakum
Near Naples. Italy-Joseph E. Yoakum
Near Damascus Syria-Joseph E. Yoakum
Near Damascus, Syria-Joseph E. Yoakum
Near Trieste-Joseph E. Yoakum
Near Trieste-Joseph E. Yoakum

Scottie Wilson

Born of Jewish descent, Louis Freeman grew up in the tenements of Glasgow, Scotland,  dropping out of school at the age of eight to help provide income for the struggling family. He later enlisted in the army, changing his name to Scottie Wilson. After serving in WWI he moved to Toronto, Canada, where he owned a second-hand store. At the age of 44 he was listening to Mendelssohn when, all of a sudden, he dipped a pen into the inkwell and started drawing. Pablo Picasso and Andre Breton were early collectors of his intricate and decorative drawings of birds, fish and fauna.

House of Peace-Scottie Wilson
House of Peace-Scottie Wilson
Scottie Wilson
Scottie Wilson
Scottie Wilson
Scottie Wilson