Apologia pro vita sua

George Grosz Mouse sketchbook, 1950-1952Mice as subject matter may have been light-years away from the artist’s early, caustic vision of his native Germany between the wars. Yet in the years, 1950-1951, he drew seventeen rodents in the pages of what he called his “Mäusezeichbuch,” his mice drawing book. Several are pinned in the once ubiquitous snap traps—regrettable blows of reality—that have left art historians guessing. Did the artist discover in the mouse a “discourse on nature and the past?” Or did he, now a naturalized American, revel in the post-WWII political irony of the trap’s trademark name, Victor?[1]

Considered “one of the twentieth century’s greatest satirists,” a Hogarth by way of Goya, George Grosz was shaped by both the obscene death and destruction he witnessed serving in the Kaiser’s war and the corrosive contradictions of the subsequent Weimar Republic. He portrayed lust and violence, at once ribald and revolting, as political power’s helpmates; his caricatures lacerated German society: the Church, the Military and the Bourgeoisie. Obese and porcine. Mere gatherings of empirical evidence. “I spared no one…I considered myself a natural scientist,” he wrote in his autobiography.[2] Yet he recognized that he was but both sides of the same proverbial coin. “I was everybody I depicted: the rich, gorging, champagne-guzzling man favored by fate, as well as the one out there holding out his hand in the pouring rain.”[3] While the streets of Berlin simmered, Grosz’s art soon made his name in America, the land of his boyhood dreams, the land of James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohicans; a hair’s breadth before the Reichstag went up in flames, Grosz accepted an invitation to teach in New York, arriving in 1933.

Sought-after at the Art Students League, however, wasn’t a balm to the realization that his satiric work was now viewed as outdated and depressing, crowded out by abstract expressionism. Like a wind-up toy he shuffled around, looking for his artistic soul. He turned back to the works of the old masters, Pisanello and Dürer, studying the way they painted animals, a duck, a young hare, a couple of squirrels… Later, in his acceptance speech for a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Grosz spoke about “the limitations of satire and desire to be an artist of nature.” The writer Ian Buruma describes Grosz’s talk: “It is a cry from the heart, a desperate apologia pro vita sua, but the audience thinks he is clowning, and interrupts his speech with howls of laughter….”[4]

To the mice, nature morte, Grosz applied the unvarnished truth, much as he did in his earlier illustrations. The creatures are meticulously rendered, “life-size”—their fur defined by each hair, their tiny paws rigid, their eyes unseeing.


[1] See Beeke Sell Tower’s essay “Of Mice and Manhattan: Sketchbook 1950/7 in the Fogg Art Museum,” The Sketchbooks of George Grosz, ed. Peter Nisbet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1993), 122-126.

[2] George Grosz, George Grosz: An Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (New York: Macmillan, 1983), 125.

[3] Ibid., p. 125.

[4] Ian Buruma, “George Grosz’s Amerika,” The New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995, 25.

(Image: Two Dead Mice; verso: blank page, 1950-1951; Drawing, Sketchbook Page; Graphite on off-white wove paper, 6 x 9 3/16 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Anonymous gift in gratitude for the friendship and kindness of Dean Wilbur Joseph Bender, 1955.95.21, for non-commercial purposes only.)


What does the parrot say?

Tuti-NamaInasmuch as he loved to be entertained with stories, the Mughal emperor Akbar appreciated their added benefit of teaching his harem a few subtle lessons. Tuti-Nama, or Tales of the Parrot, had come to him, across two centuries, through the translation of the Persian physician and Sufi, Nakhshabi, who lived in Northern India. Under Akbar’s patronage, in the sixteenth century, the tales were illustrated with 218 paintings by the hands of Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd al-Samad and the imperial atelier to recreate a fully illuminated manuscript of the parrot’s stories—stories within a story.

A motormouth and a moralist, the parrot senses adultery is in the air. His owner’s wife, Khojasta has spotted a handsome young man beyond the garden walls whom she is determined to meet while her husband, a merchant, is away in foreign lands. As per the instructions her husband left, she asks his two birds for permission to step out. The parrot decides to take a soft line, not least because he has just witnessed her wringing the neck of his friend, a mynah bird, who refused her request and told her stay put. Over fifty-two nights the parrot detains her, occupying her with fifty-two tales, variations of popular fictions and fables—a handful of which, Khojasta would quickly find out, just happens to show what happens when a woman doesn’t behave.

On the fifteenth night, the story the parrot tells is this: Once there was a lion who was so ‘long in the tooth’ that when he ate, his food would get stuck between his long teeth—much to the joy of hungry mice. At night whenever the lion tried to sleep, the small creatures would come and pick at the crumbs, keeping the lion from having a good rest. He grumbled to the other animals. A fox said, “Hail! honoured sire. There is a cat, who is your majesty’s devoted subject; order her to keep watch.” The lion was pleased with the fox’s suggestion. So night after night the cat stood sentry, frightening the mice away while the lion slept like a lamb; the feline keenly understood that she must not touch one hair on any of the rodents’ furry heads. If she were to kill them, she’d be out of a job. One day the cat had an errand to run. She asked the lion, just for a day and a night could her kitten take her place. The lion said, sure, why not. Upon the cat’s return, she immediately saw the mice were dead. “What’s this you have done, to go and kill all the mice?” she said. The kitten replied, “Why did you not forbid me to do so, when you went?” Both cat and kitten were filled with remorse and repented but it was too late. Upon hearing there were no more mice, the lion dismissed the cat from her post.

The parrot, having finished his story, looks at Khojasta and says, “I am afraid, lest your husband should suddenly arrive, and then you too, should be put to shame [and sent off] like the cat.”[1]


[1] Story re-told from The Totā Kahānī; or, Tales of a Parrot, translated from the Hindi, 1875, and The Tootinameh, or Tales of a Parrot, translated from the Persian, 1844.

Additional sources: Bonnie, C. Wade, Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India, University of Chicago Press, 1998; William Alexander Clouston, “Tales of a Parrot,” Flowers from a Persian Garden and Other Papers, London, 1890.

(Image: Tuti-Nama (Tales of a Parrot): Tale XV, The cat attacks the mice which disturb the lion, c. 1560, color and gold on paper, Overall, 7 15/16 x 5 1/2 inches, The Cleveland Museum of Art.)


Misericords Love Company

Robert Thompson, on furniture made for Leeds Girls' High School Library, 1933A wooden bookend or a bowl or a cheese board that features a carved mouse sounds like a mere novelty, yet there are warnings on, of all places, eBay, cautioning potential bidders against frauds, fakes and forgeries. And one begins to understand the value of the object’s possible legacy. Robert Thompson was an original, the only Mouseman, a consummate artist-craftsman of North Yorkshire, England, who came of age in the last decade of the nineteenth century, who snubbed the machine-age in favor of the arts-and-crafts movement, who decided to make the mouse his logo by carving him onto almost every piece of his furniture.

Thompson’s mouse debuted sometime around 1920. “I and another carver were carving a huge cornice for a screen,” Thompson would later write, “and he happened to say something about being as poor as a church mouse. I said I’ll carve a mouse here and did so, then it struck me what a lovely trade mark.”[1] And thus the first of Thompson’s mice was born, the genesis of his moniker “the Mouseman of Kilburn.” His work was of the ecclesiastical nature, woodwork for humble churches and noble cathedrals, across the towns and villages of northern England.

At age fifteen he apprenticed to an engineer about sixty miles southeast of Kilburn, the country village where he was born and raised and where he would return after five years to join his father’s joinery shop. According to Patricia Lennon—author of a small, quirky book that is at once a short biography of Thompson and a travel guide with driving tours to see Thompson’s mice—his trips to and fro during his apprenticeship took him through Ripon and he would frequently stop and admire its cathedral’s 15th century misericords—carvings, often fanciful, found on the underside Robert Mouseman Thompsonof the seats in the choir stall—exquisitely produced by William Bromflet. It was Bromflet’s work that helped Thompson to see how woodworking could be turned into art. Following in the footsteps of his medieval forebears, Kilburn’s Mouseman worked solely with English oak, cured it naturally not in a kiln, and colored the wood with the fuming process—the honeyed tint that is achieved when ammonia interacts with the wood’s tannin. He snubbed nails and screws, eschewed the clackety-clack of mechanized lathes for the opportunity to work his knuckles to the bone. He chose the adze to define his craftsmanship in the soft ripples the shaping tool made in the wood, resulting in furniture that was in equal parts graceful and rustic. By 1930 his small shop was filled with ten apprentices of his own. He considered each one “to be fully trained once they could carve the mouse to his exacting standards.”[2]


[1] Patricia Lennon, The Tale of the Mouse: The Life and work of Robert Thompson the Mouseman of Kilburn, Great Northern Books, 2001, p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 15.

Also, see Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen.

Images: Photograph of Robert Thompson at work; Mouse on one of the pieces of furniture that he made for the Leeds Girls’ High School library, 1933.

From Here to Modernity

Shibata Zeshin Mouse, ca 1870Shibata Zeshin painted them in groups, in threesomes and twosomes, and one by one; he painted one as a monk, another on the shoulder of the god Daikokuten. Mice it seems were a favorite motif. Perhaps his affection for them was inspired by his early studies at Kyoto’s Maruyama-Shijo school of art where he was taught in the tradition of its founder, the celebrated eighteenth century artist Maruyama Okyo who worked from nature. Or perhaps it was a hidden message of support for the merchant class in feudal Japan—mice the ever-familiar token of prosperity.

Considered “history’s greatest lacquer artist,” Shibata Zeshin has the added distinction of being one of the first Japanese artists who became known in the West while alive.[1] He began his training in the arts in 1817 at age eleven. Along with instruction in traditional painting he apprenticed to a lacquer maker; he learned the complexities of the centuries-old craft, mastered the urushi—or the sap collected from the commonly called lacquer trees—that involved no less than thirty-three stages.[2] He became a leading lacquerer of trays and boxes and sword mounts, embedding them according to convention with bits of mother-of-pearl and gold and silver leaf. And in the 1840s when the shoguns decried precious metals in decorative works (“wasteful!” they said), like a politician he spun the bad news into good. He created lacquer techniques that simulated “rusty iron” and oxidized bronze.

Though by the fall of 1868, as any student of Japanese history knows, the shoguns had been toppled, the feudal class exhausted. The Meiji restoration displaced the Edo era. Japan opened its ports, and with the flood of visitors in their western garb Japanese traditional arts began to feel a tug. Their practitioners were left divided between those who accused their fellow artists of pandering to the West and the fellow artists who, in turn, criticized those who remained unbending in the winds of change.

Zeshin, however, soared above the squabble, buoyed by his constant craving for creative innovation. He gave lacquer a whole new purpose. Drawn to European oil paintings, which had begun to trickle into Asia, he was seduced by their rich hues, the startling contrasts in tones. In one fell swoop he merged the East and the West. He took the viscous resin and turned it into a painting medium, finding the right additives to increase its fluidity. He painted with the lacquer on panels and on paper exhilarating colors that had heretofore not been seen; yet, as opposed to many Meiji period painters, he stayed loyal to traditional subject matter, and to his best-loved leitmotif, the mouse.


[1] Joe Earle, “The Genius Of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin,” Japan Society articles.

[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: Roderick Conway Morris, “The Meiji Crisis in Japanese Art,” New York Times, March 27, 2013; Robert O. Jacobsen, “Shibata Zeshin and the Art of Urushi-e,” The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, 63 (1976-1977): 4-21; Joe Earle, Meiji No Takara: Treasures of Imperial Japan Masterpieces by Shibata Zeshin (The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Japanese Art), London: The Kibo Foundation, 1996.

(Image: Mouse, circa 1870, 19.4 x 16.8 cm, Lacquer on paper, The British Museum.)

“Eyes of a child whose every look is the first.”

Andre Kertesz Still Life with Snake, 1960

A white mouse peers out of a cup, a snake slithers around, white flowers burst from a white vase. This, a still life that speaks of life and death, if only metaphorically. This, a still life that evokes a memory of a happier time. Making the photograph in 1960 André Kertész—then absorbed into the realm of uninspired commercial work, that made him feel as if he were “buried alive”—seems to have been reaching back through the decades to rediscover himself.

In 1925 the photographer traded his native Hungary for France, traded Andor for André. At age thirty-one, his heart, as he would say, was in Paris; as a child he instinctively knew he was an artist and Paris in the twenties was the heart of the art world. He “lived” at the favored Surrealist spot, Café du Dôme, where he would become friends with Mondrian, Chagall, Calder and Léger. Completely self-taught he had, at a small avant-garde gallery on the Left Bank, his first solo show, a critical success; soon he was contributing to numerous European magazines, his pictures scooped up by various museums.

When the head of a New York photography agency beckoned him to cross the pond, how could he, he thought, turn America down? He, with his wife Elizabeth, left Paris in 1936, never dreaming that in New York he would stay, unable to return, unable to make his name. The war designated him an “enemy alien.” And though he had been a professional photographer for more than two decades, his soft-spoken images of everyday people and everyday things, with a penetrating point of view were too European for an America who rewarded stark, precisionist works of an Edward Weston, “technical perfection.” Life magazine told him, “You are talking too much with your pictures”[1]; he took a job at Condé Nast, only to find shooting glossy interiors was as soul-stealing as his first job crunching numbers at the Budapest stock exchange. Nevertheless on assignments he always carted his Leica with him; during breaks he’d shoot his own photographs.[2]

Kertész, who embraced tilted perspectives and unexpected juxtapositions, shot the still life with the snake and the mouse on the twelfth of June, two years before he found the resolve to bid the magazine publisher farewell. He would later write, “My work is inspired by my life.”[3] In 1962, with the pluck of that selfsame young man who had arrived in Paris, who had dropped everything for his vision, he at age sixty-eight once again devoted himself to creating his own pictures. The recognition for his genius, for his immeasurable contribution to photography—melding photojournalism with art—that had eluded him was at last within his grasp.


Title: from the Dadist poet Paul Dermée’s poem “Kertész.”

[1] André Kertész, Kertész on Kertész, NY: Abbeville Press, 1985, p. 90.

[2] Carole Kismaric, “André Kertész,” André Kertész: Masters of Photography, NY: Aperture, 1993, p. 9.

[3] Kertész, op. cit., p. 29.

(Image: Still Life with Snake, 1960, New York, published in André Kertész: Sixty Years of Photography, 1912-1972, Nicolas Ducrot, ed., Grossman Publishers.)

Toy Story

Andy Warhol, Roll Over Mouse, 1983, acrylic silkscreen“Sunday, May 8, 1983. Decided to work at home on boxes. When you flatten out product boxes they’re so beautiful,”[1] Andy Warhol dictated over the phone to his assistant Pat Hackett, during the routine call he made daily to meticulously document his life. The single sentiment seems incidental, absorbed into the thousands that fill the eight hundred pages of his published Diaries, that read for the most part like a social engagement calendar. Yet his expression about packaging poignantly sums up his aesthetic belief.

On that Sunday he was working on a new project. His Zurich art dealer Bruno Bischofberger had proposed a series of “paintings for children”; having his own children in mind he told Warhol his wish was for an art exhibition that could speak to a child. What he seemed to have overlooked is that so many works of the American Pop Art movement couldn’t have been more child-friendly with their bright, flat colors and playful and stark representations of recognizable images—cartoon characters stomping on the toes of the abstract expressionists. All the same the Pop artist warmed to the idea; children, he thought, were “cute” as long as they didn’t belong to him.[2] So he—an obsessive collector of everything from early movie star photographs to folk art to fine art, from jewelry to cookie jars—took out his “vintage” toys, each in its original box, and created a series commonly referred to as his “Toy Paintings.”

Among his windup tin playthings was the Roll Over Mouse, made in Japan in the 1960s. The artist, who put thirty-two Campbell’s soup cans in row after row and made pyramids of boxes of Brillo, projected with an opaque projector the mouse’s flattened container onto a sheet of paper in order to trace it. “His ‘philosophy’ was that anyone could do it,” the poet Nathan Kernan writes, “yet his line remains indubitably his own, personal, fresh, lively.”[3] Warhol cropped the image and turned it into a silkscreen painting. As with his famed portraits, in the printing process he had shifted the colors beneath the drawing, giving the mouse on the box an animated appearance.

While it’s unclear exactly when toys first piqued his interest, Warhol once told an interviewer, in response to his pointing out that the artist tended to amass things that weren’t valuable when new, “I think you should go to F.A.O. Schwartz and buy a new toy everyday and put it away.”[4]


[1] Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, The Andy Warhol Diaries, NY: Warner Books, 1989, p. 499

[2] Jordan Crandall, “Andy Warhol, 1986,” I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews 1962-1987, Kenneth Goldsmith, ed., NY: Carroll & Graf, 2004, p. 359.

[3] Nathan Kernan, Exhibition catalogue introduction, Andy Warhol Toy Drawings, NY: Paul Kasmin Gallery, 2000, p. 7.

[4] Glenn O’Brien, “Interview: Andy Warhol, 1977,” I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews 1962-1987, Kenneth Goldsmith, ed., NY: Carroll & Graf, 2004, p. 251.

(Image: Roll Over Mouse, 1983, Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 8 x 10 in.)

“A kingdom of my own”

John Constable, A Mouse with a piece of cheese, 1824

“Nature is the fountain’s head, the source from whence all originally must spring,” John Constable wrote to a friend.[1] The English landscape painter, who grew up in Suffolk, spent the springs and summers away from his London studio to wander through woods and meadows near his childhood home, to observe and paint every “stile and stump,” every change in the shapes of the clouds, in the colors of the sky—“skying,” he called it. He would sit for hours on the banks of the Stour or on Gun Hill or by the Stratford Watermill; the stillness with which he sketched, his friend and memoirist Charles Leslie said, was such that on one particular day a field mouse crawled into his pocket.[2]

Alongside J.M.W. Turner, Constable would become England’s most celebrated landscape painter. But in 1814, both admission to the Royal Academy as an Associate member and the hand of a young woman eluded the thirty-eight-year-old artist. The full members of the Academy gave him not a single vote, his third application. Maria Bicknell’s grandfather, a chaplain-in-ordinary to George III, disapproved of Constable—saw this artist, son of a grain merchant-mill owner, beneath his granddaughter’s station. Quill on paper seemed to be Constable’s best weapon. He applied to the Academy again and again, five more times before he triumphed; he wrote Maria letter after letter, “Dear Miss Bicknell,” “Dear Miss Bicknell,” “My dearest Maria.” Eventually the conviction of his love not to mention a bit of inherited income made him a suitable suitor. Maria wooed, her grandfather worn, Constable received permission to marry Maria. She asked him what she should wear for their wedding; he said he “always wore black and thought she looked well in that colour.”[3]

Ten years later Constable gained his first award, a gold medal for his paintings at the Academy salon, only not in London but in Paris—ironic for the man rubber-banded to Suffolk his entire life. Stendhal said his works were “the mirror of nature,” and Delacroix was swept away, so much so that he is thought to have repainted his Scenes from the Massacres of Chios, copying Constable’s technique.

Once again, he found himself with a quill in his hand. He was keeping a journal for Maria who, on the advice of her doctor, was living with their four children in Brighton by the sea, in hopes the salted air would stabilize her worsening health. He wrote of his daily activities and of their animals; the Charlotte Street home was always shared with several cats, a goldfinch, and a mouse named Jack, who “was getting very fat” on the rinds of cheese Constable gave him.[4]


[1] Anthony Bailey, John Constable: A Kingdom of His Own, p. 30.

[2] C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, p. 279.

[3] Bailey, op. cit., p. 88

[4] Ibid., 156.

(Image: A mouse with a piece of cheese, inscription “Jack,” 1824, Oil, on grey paper, 10.1 x 13.3 cm, British Museum.)

In the Garden of Good and Evil

Liselot van der Hijden Trapped, 2006Like her fellow Netherlander Hieronymus Bosch who put a mouse in a glass container in his painting the Garden of Earthly Delights five hundred years earlier, Liselot van der Heijden put two mice in a white box with a glass front for her video piece. The artist’s installation is as spare as Bosch’s triptych is teeming. Nevertheless both works stir the same pot—in a manner of speaking: First Sin. While one is biblical, Adam and Eve out of control, the other is political, the United States’ leader run amok.

The New York City-based photographer and video artist van der Heijden created See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil in 2006, against the backdrop of the agenda the Bush administration was pursuing; “a parody,” we’re told, “of the deceptive and manipulative use of Good and Evil to frame foreign and domestic policy… when evil is thought of as not-human, as a thing, or a force, something that has a real existence…”[1] Language and symbolic power are recurring themes in her work.

Three wall-size screens are positioned inside a rectangular space. On the screen at the end, opposite the opening, is a video of a single snake coiling and uncoiling, slithering slowly inside a white box similar to that of the mice, on a twenty-five minute loop. The snake segment is called Serpent—that trickster-tempter of divine knowledge. And on an adjacent small television screen is George W. Bush using the word “evil” in far too many ways, culled from his State of the Union speeches. “Evil is real”; “to see the true evil”; “to hear claims of evil”; “to speak with evil,” the 43rd President says. Meanwhile the mice are displayed to the left; their footage is called Trap. In a continuous replay of twenty minutes, the tiny creatures run around looking for a way out, distracted intermittently by a red apple, the proverbial forbidden fruit. On the facing wall to the mice is a reflection of the mice video and the viewers themselves, courtesy of a real-time feed from a surveillance camera. According to the artist, “representations of nature reveal more about cultural, ideological, political and social frameworks, than actual nature.”[2] We and the mice are one. Bosch, I think, would approve.



[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: LMAK Projects, “See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil: Liselot van der Liselot van der Heijden,” The Village Voice, October 27th, 2006.

(Image: Trap, video still, copyright Liselot van der Heijden.)

When a mouse is not a mouse.

Engelbart's Mouse, Prototype (replica), ca. 1964The body was a wooden case, topped with a tiny red button; a cord ran out of its boxy back, and with a flick of a hand, the palm-size device scurried horizontally or vertically across a flat surface on two wheels set perpendicularly underneath. Someone said, oh, look, it’s a mouse. And thus the prototype, the “X-Y position indicator for a display system,” had just been re-christened, the first computer rodent born.

Douglas Engelbart—who at the age of eighty-eight passed away a week ago today—invented the mouse. A radar technician for the Navy during World War II, and trained electrical engineer and researcher with Stanford [University] Research Institute, director of its experimental lab, Engelbart in 1963 thought “if a computer can punch cards or print paper, it can draw anything you want on a screen.”[1] He made sketches of his imagined pointing gadget that he passed along to his colleague and chief engineer, William English, to build the preliminary model.

Five years later the mouse was ready for its debut; the tiny button controller had proliferated to three, the body a bit more rounded, more polished, but it  ran the same. At a computer conference in San Francisco in 1968 Engelbart brought his vision to life, his talk later dubbed by the Silicon Valley-ites as “the mother of all demos.” In front of one thousand leading computer scientists and for one hundred minutes he sat on stage at a computer keyboard and meticulously showed how his mouse’s movements could astonishingly be translated to a small black “bug” of a cursor on the accompanying 22 x 18-foot movie screen. He also introduced ‘shared-screen’ teleconferencing, multiple windows and text editing and what we now call hypertext. His audience was transfixed, gave him a standing ovation—one computer scientist compared the presentation to Moses parting the Red Sea. The demonstration could surely have blown Steve Jobs and all his “booms” out of the water. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, upon learning of Engelbart’s death, told ABC News, “I have admired him so much. Everything we have in computers can be traced to his thinking. To me, he is a god.”[2]

Soon after his legendary demonstration Engelbart and his team discovered a tiny flaw in their mouse’s design. Unlike that of its counterpart in the wild, the tail instead of creating balance made the computer creature a bit unruly—at least for a user to use, the cord catching around the user’s arm. So they moved the tail to the front, coming from the mouse’s face. Evolution, Darwin might say. Engelbart did say, “I don’t know why we call it a mouse. Sometimes, I apologize.”[3]


[1] Quoted from a 1997 CNN interview, “Computer mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart dies,” CNN, July 7, 2013.

[2] Joanna Stern, “Douglas Engelbart, Father of the Computer Mouse, Dies at Age 88,” ABC News, July 3, 2013.

[3] Douglas Engelbart, “Mother of All Demos,” Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco, December 2009, http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html#complete

Additional sources: John Markoff, “Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse,” New York Times, July 3, 2013; SRI International; Doug Engelbart Institute; Computer History Museum.

(Image: Engelbart Mouse (produced commerically by SRI for Engelbart’s 1968 demo), ca. 1968, 2 3/8 x 2 3/4 x 4 in., photo credit: Robert Holmgren)

How do I feel by the end of the day

Cat and Mouse 1967 by James Lloyd 1905-1974James Lloyd found a “snap” in a newspaper of a white feline, the perfect stand-in for his own who roamed the Yorkshire countryside. Sitting at the kitchen table, in the midst of his gaggle of giggling children and the Beatles belting out their newly released Sgt. Pepper, with a blank board in front of him he took out his pigments and cast the cat in a pinkish hue—“I never like painting things pure white.”[1] He added the mouse off the top of his head, closest to his eye; perspective wasn’t an issue, ergo the mouse is much too big, half the size of his mortal enemy.

Lloyd’s work has been described both as naïve and as outsider art—terms seemingly interchangeable. While “Outsider” is today the “catchall” for art created outside the cultural mainstream, in the past there was a suggestion of mental illness, the association wrapped up in the concept’s provenance art brut, or “raw art,” the genre that the artist Jean Dubuffet advanced in the 1940s with regard to artworks by schizophrenic patients and the sense that intrinsic to their creativity was an unknowable interior life. Meanwhile naïve art’s definition drew on the artists’ child-like vision of their exterior life, compulsively rendered in child-like, flat surfaces. The one thing the two labels share is that the artist was self-taught. Not that that in itself was unique, but the difference between say Arshile Gorky and James Lloyd was the amount of exposure each artist had to the world of art. Gorky, friends with Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis and John Graham, was a recognized insider. Lloyd, on the other hand, painted for himself and for his family in his sheltered environment, in his spare time from his factory job, at the end of the day. That is until his wife, his greatest champion, wrote to the famed art critic Sir Herbert Read once she learned he lived nearby.

Looking closely we can see Lloyd’s paintings are made up of microscopic dots, a gazillion of them per square inch. However it wasn’t the French pointillist Georges Seurat but the English painters Turner and Constable whose works Lloyd had admired. He poured over books with reproductions of their paintings and noticed the dots. He grabbed triple aught-size brushes and began to paint. Dot, by dot, by dot. “[A] kind of physical mantra,” critic George Melly wrote,[2] imitating the dots found in the color separation in the printing process.

His paintings show a gentle English country life, which gives us the sense he was a gentle man: grass and sky, bucolic lanes, children with farm animals, animals unworried, everyone getting along—and his favorite band, The Beatles, copied from photographs.

In 1968 the Tate acquired, a year after it was painted, Cat and Mouse.


[2] George Melly, A Tribe of One: Great Naïve Painters of the British Isles, Oxford, UK: Rona and the Oxford Illustrated Press, 1981, p. 59.

Additional source: Lisa Stone, Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection, Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Museum, 2012.

(Image: Cat and Mouse, 1967, Gouache on board, 15 x 21 in., collection Tate.)


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