#59 Self Portrait With A Cat
Hallo meine freunde! We’re here for my second story of 2024. I saw in the new year in beautiful, freezing Stockholm. One of the highlights of that trip was visiting the Moderna Museet on the island of Skeppsholmen. This story is inspired by a painting I saw there, Self Portrait with A Cat, by Lotte Laserstein at an exhibition of the German’s work.
Lotte battles with Prinz, her cat, to get him to settle down for a self portrait.
Your accompanied listening this week is Iemanjá by Tapioca, the song I was listening to when preparing this post!
If you’re a keen traveller, step aboard the plane of the archives.
#59 Self Portrait With A Cat
The sun pokes through dense clouds. There’s a light wind. It’s not cold enough to stop me. I walk up the spiral stairs to the rooftop to find Prinz, watching the birds on the opposite roof, parading up and down the wall as he seeks a route to the birds.
‘Prinz, get down! Get down!’ He never listens to me. I scoop him up under his belly, his paws spread out wide like helicopter propellers as I put him down on the floor, set up my easel and canvas and take a seat.
I prepare my paints, wet my brushes and I stare at the canvas. It’s been four days now since I opened this studio, and I’m yet to set paint to canvas. I’m still understanding what it is I want to say. Of course, I know I want to paint the New Woman, and to say something about identity at a time when identities are in flux. But then, the skill and mastery is not in knowing what to say, but how to say it.
Prinz meows and leaps onto my lap and curls into a ball. I stroke him habitually, without really thinking. A self portrait with Prinz! Yes! That’s it, that’s what I will paint!
I go and get a mirror and position it behind the canvas, to one side. I take Prinz in my arms, and sit down again in front of the canvas. I start to outline my shape, and then Prinz’s shape. The skyline behind me is dim and grey. Indeed, I am dim and grey today. A little flushed in the cheeks. But dim and grey.
Prinz wriggles in my hands, his soft fur coming out so easily between my fingers. There’s a rush through me as my hands work, and I only hope that I’m not reacting - to the need to paint, to the expectation set on me by my peers, colleagues, family, to my desire for success. Nothing can be worse for art than pandering to need. I must remember that. I’m not painting for the sake of it. I’m painting for myself. Because I need it. Because I have something inside that needs to get out. And even if I’m just painting little Prinz and me, I need to have that in the forefront of my mind. Waste no opportunity.
Prinz rolls onto his back and starts to nuzzle himself.
‘Stop that! Stay still!’ I command, but he does not listen.
A pigeon lands on the wall, but as soon as it spots Prinz, it flutters off again. At the sound of its wings, Prinz rights himself and, positioned across my legs, takes the stance of a lion in battle.
‘Settle down!’ He jumps off me, knocking the table with my paints on, but not sending it over, and leaps up onto the wall. I half expect him to launch himself over the side! ‘Get down, for goodness’ sake!’
I go to collect Prinz, but he scuttles away, out of reach. I try to berate him but he does not listen. I get a saucer of milk from the kitchen and put it down beside my chair. That gets his attention. Prinz circles me, his tail high, dancing about my legs. He laps up the milk, and meows in satisfaction. I pick him and he settles in my lap. His eyes mellow.
I continue painting, outlining both our bodies, and sigh. A gust of wind brushes my short hair across my face. I stroke Prinz with my other hand, between the ears, and he purrs.
Then, out of nowhere, a bang! I look up and the neighbour’s slapping a rug against the wall, dust beating out of it. Prinz jumps to his feet, his ears pricked, and he looks around him with those alert eyes. He jumps down again and goes off in search. We’re never going to get this damned painting done. I try to lure Prinz with more milk but he’s clearly had enough.
What will I do? When he’s in this sort of mood, there really is no reasoning with him. He’s a nuisance sometimes. His attention flits about every which way like a weather vane in a hurricane.
Then I remember that old trick my mother showed me with our old cat, Oskar. Brandy! I go find a bottle of brandy and approach Prinz. He licks the lip of the bottle and then lets me pick him up and carry him back to the chair. Again, he starts to snooze in my lap as I paint. But, out of nowhere, his eyes open, he stands up, and tries to jump down. I grab him with both hands around his waist and he stretches out like he might be able to wriggle out of my hands. ‘Stay! Stay still, Prinz!’ He does not listen. He wriggles and wriggles but I don’t let go. I try to pull him into me but he rotates to face me, reaches forward and scratches all the way down my forearm, from elbow to hand!
‘Ow!’ I instinctively let go, and Prinz runs away, inside, where I cannot find him.
I stare at the scratch on my arm, the blood seeping out onto my skin. The canvas, a chaotic mess of lines, flicks and squiggles. What the hell is that?
I take in the surroundings for no other reason than it’s something to do while I sigh, catch my breath, regain myself.
I pick up the brushes again and start to work on myself, my face and shoulders, the surrounding skyline. I don’t need Prinz for that bit. An hour, two hours pass and there’s no sign of Prinz. I think about my career, my work, and what I want to say. I think I have something there, but perhaps it’s better to just paint and see what emerges.
Strange, Prinz is always up here, on the balcony, unless I’ve locked the doors. But no, nothing. I’ve not seen him at all.
Then, from behind the chimney, Prinz emerges with a little leap, landing on the wall he paraded earlier. Stranger still, as I’m sure he went downstairs earlier and I didn’t see him come back up. But then here he is. He stops in the middle of the wall, and turns to stare at me.
‘What do you want Prinz?’
‘I want you to stop painting, Lotte,’ Prinz returns. He has a deep voice.
‘Your work lacks voice, lacks value. You have nothing to say.’
‘Well, nothing that hasn’t been said. Nothing new.’
Prinz rubs behind his ears with one paw and yawns, before lying down, stretched out like a queen on a chaise longue. The arrogance!
‘There are bigger things happening in the world than your art can express. Think about politics and war, and economics, and human suffering. These things are real. What you are doing, well, it’s nothing. Face it, you’re nothing. Worthless. You’ll never run a successful studio. Never sell a work of art. Just whittle away until you run out of money, scrape by somehow, until you’re old and ill and realising you’ve wasted your time.’
‘That’s not very nice, Prinz.’
‘Well, it’s the truth.’
I put my head in my hands. And then I reach for the brandy and take a sip. Prinz stands, jumps down from the wall, and approaches me. He reaches both paws up onto my legs, and I offer him some brandy. He laps it up, both paws around the bottle’s neck, until I pull it away to stop him. ‘Thank you,’ he says politely. He leaps up onto my lap and settles down into a long sleep.
I continue painting all day, until the self portrait is complete.
When it’s done, I stare at it and stare at it and wonder, have I done something good after all?