News Column

Both cats and dogs get their due at Blanton exhibit

July 4, 2014

By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Austin American-Statesman

July 04--

We think we know them, the cats and dogs so many of us place at the center of our lives.

But if there's one take-away from "In the Company of Cats and Dogs" -- the rich and intriguing new exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art -- it's that we are far from unraveling our tangled and ever-shifting relationship with canines and felines.

With flair and freshness, Francesca Consagra -- the Blanton's senior curator of prints, drawings and European painting -- marshals materials stretching back three millennia to show us our convoluted, contradictory and constantly changing bond with cats and dogs.

And for all its initial impression of light-heartedness, "In the Company of Cats and Dogs" offers a smart invitation to reconsider centuries of art from a more nuanced starting point.

Rather than merely present a chronological account of how cats and dogs are portrayed in 3,000 years of art history, Consagra illuminates the more complicated meanings behind why those cats and dogs end up in art to begin with.

And that's relatively new territory.

Art historians heretofore have largely considered the role of cats and dogs in works of art to be of limited symbolic importance -- mere decorations, props even.

Collaborating with several University of Texas faculty members (in particular, Janet Davis of the American Studies department and Sam Gosling in the psychology department; both contribute to the exhibit's audio tour), Consagra reconsidered works of art through the lens of anthrozoology, a fairly new academic discipline that examines the interactions between humans and other animals.

(Hal Herzog, anthrozoology's most well-known describer and author of the bestseller "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals," is a featured speaker at the Blanton on Aug. 16.)

Organized thematically around psychological, cultural and biological subjects, "In the Company of Cats and Dogs" reveals much about how our treatment of and relationship with animals is really a social construct -- a construct that's changed enormously over the centuries.

If ancient Egypt worshiped the cat, for example, in Europe the rise of Christianity ushered in an era of unusual suspicion of cats, who were associated with evil spirits.

By the Enlightenment, though, pet-keeping became more common in European households -- a way for people to demonstrate their reason over and empathy with animals. And that increased empathy was just enough of a psychological foundation to launch greater anthropomorphism, which in turn led to more characterization of dogs and cats in literature and visual culture.

Consagra plumbed the Blanton's collection as well as regional collections to make diverse selections, from an ancient Egyptian sculpture of the cat goddess Bastet to, yes, Internet cat video.

From the San Antonio Museum of Art she retrieved a third century Meso-American sculpture of a woman and a puppy as well as a second century ceramic Chinese dog figurine.

A private alumni collector lent a group of rare prints by Paul Gauguin. And Thomas Sully's surprisingly enigmatic painting "Cinderella at the Kitchen Fire" visits from the Dallas Museum of Art.

And culling from another impressive University of Texas collection, the Ransom Center, Consagra adds even more range to the exhibit. There's an engraving of the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," 20th century photographs by the likes of Elliott Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson along with the eleventh century Bede Compendium manuscript, a page opened to reveal a zodiac dog.

And no ignoring the Internet either.

In the atrium just outside the exhibit, three monitors screen a selection of cat videos including two by Will Braden, whose spoofs on black-and-white French New Wave cinema star Henri, a French-speaking cat in constant existential turmoil.

The exhibit's development has an interesting little backstory.

Consagra was fairly new to the Blanton staff when it was suggested just more than a year ago that she consider organizing a summer exhibit designed to have great popular appeal. Perhaps a dog exhibit for summer 2014?

Though the owner of a beloved hound dog named Duke, Consagra hesitated before agreeing to do so. After all, how to make the show more than merely pictures of dogs?

Then Consagra was confronted by the cat people on the museum's staff who demanded she include cats as part of the exhibit. She agreed.

After all -- what's the use of prolonging the age-old dogs versus cats tussle?


"In the Company of Cats and Dogs"

When: Through Sept. 21. Museum hours: 10 a.m. t0 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Third Thursdays of the month until 9 p.m.

Where: Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Cost: $5-$9 (free on Thursdays).

Information: 512-471-7324,

Selected programs

Some are free, such as the Pooch Parade and events on Thursdays; others included with museum admission.

Perspectives Gallery Talk: Amber Rowland

The behavior program manager of the Austin Animal Center discusses the exhibit's human/pet interactions.

When: 12:30 p.m.July 17

"Umberto D"

Vittorio de Sica's neorealist film about an elderly man and his dog.

When: 6:30 p.m.July 17

A day of dog and cat-themed programs

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.July 19

Bring your dog on a leash and join the "Pooch Parade" around the University of Texas campus at 10 a.m. Then at 11 a.m. it's working dog demonstrations with service and police animals.

At 1 p.m. it's "Prison Pups," a documentary about inmates who raise and train service dogs. Then at 3 p.m. there will be a 60-minute curated selection of Internet cat videos.


Peter O'Toole and Peter Dinklage co-star with the famous collie in this 2005 adventure set in the Scottish highlands.

When: 1 p.m.July 24 and 25

Hal Herzog, "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals"

Leading researcher in the study of human-animal interactions and author will discuss a variety of ways people relate to cats and dogs.

When: 1 p.m.Aug. 16

Nancy Schiesari: "Canine Soldiers"

The filmmaker discusses her forthcoming documentary and shows excerpts from the film that depicts the lives of dogs used in combat zones.

When: 6:30 p.m.Aug. 21


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