What is your relationship with art? Say you had the Louvre all to yourself: are you reading the placards and listening to prepared audio commentary to guide your tour? Do you stroll through and only stop for the pieces that strike you between the eyes? Would you rather arrange 30 daily, miniature visits instead of one long day? Could you visit a favorite piece each time and find something new to cherish, as though it were your own personal playground? Taiyo Matsumoto’s Cats of the Louvre explores our relationship with art, especially in relation to our perspective on mortality.
The primary cast are a bunch of cats who live in the Louvre’s attic and are semi-secretly supported by a few of the museum’s staff: the knowledgeable tour guide Cécile, the elderly Marcel, and new recruit Patrick. The vast majority of humans in this book are white and presumably French or visiting tourists; Patrick is dark-skinned and speaks French as well as Japanese. Their stories are the window dressing to the core cast of cats (plus a friendly spider) rendered in realistic and anthropomorphic styles. The humans marvel at and maintain the artworks in the museum; the cats just live there. While Cécile discusses the Mona Lisa, the Nike of Samothrace, The Funeral Procession of Love, and The Bridge at Narni, one young cat in particular, Snowbébé, is able to enter and explore the Louvre’s many paintings.
The art exploration is not seen as a gift by everyone: the black cat, Sawtooth, sees Snowbébé’s jaunts as risking the rest of the cats getting discovered and kicked out to the streets. Sawtooth came from the streets and knows the many ways cats can die out there. A warning for those with a certain soft spot: two animal characters die by the end of this book. There is also an extended dreamlike sequence that treats a missing child with a profoundly sad yet playful “lost time” theme. Come to think of it, “profoundly sad yet playful” is a great descriptor for Matsumoto’s body of work as well as artistic choices. The nooks and crannies of the Louvre, as well as the people in and around it, are rendered in his trademark distortions and gift for placing sly glimpses between moments. I feel more familiar with these cats and Louvre employees over the course of this one book than I otherwise would if this story were told in, say, ten volumes of a more conventional style, both visually and narratively. The way Matsumoto zooms out to shrink the Louvre against its surrounding environment—the book takes place over the course of seasons—then zooms in on wordless faces and gestures feels so esoteric and personal, yet universal at the same time.
Teens who’ve never read anything so simultaneously weird and heartfelt are going to be knocked for a loop by these cats’ misadventures; ditto for adults. Dozens of artworks are referenced, including some nude figures, but they’re chaste in presentation, so don’t go spiriting this straight to the adult shelf like it’s some forbidden fruit. The emotional core of this book concerns the place of art in life, when both are vulnerable to the ruins of time. Paintings need restoring and change in nature with each retouching; living creatures change with their environments and alternate between the need for exploration and for shelter. An enemy one day is a guardian the next, whether they’re a rival cat or a strange person. The art in which you get lost could be the same art in which you are found. Let this story be one of those pieces of art for your patrons.
Cats of the Louvre
By Taiyo Matsumoto
Publisher Age Rating: T