Thursday, 7 June 2012

Death and the Cat

I watched a video on the Guardian on Facebook the other day about an artist who turned his dead cat into a helicopter.  The link which subsequently posted itself on my timeline caused a bit of a stir, with a couple of people finding it in poor taste and  potentially setting a bad example to passing children who might be driven to feline persecution. 

I was a bit taken aback by the vehemence of the response it received.  After all, it was hardly cruelty.  The poor creature had been run over.  His owner, Bart Jansen, could have buried him and left him to rot, or had him stuffed and displayed in a glass case.  That he chose to let him fly like the pigeons Orville - for that was his name - used to watch seems to me to be the gift of a tenth life and a great way to honour his memory.

I can't help thinking that much of the outrage expressed stems from a fear of looking death in the eye.  It reminded me of seeing the embalmed corpse of Edwin McKenzie - aka 'Diogenes' - in
the fantastic exhibition of Robert Lenkiewicz's work at the Royal West of England Academy last year.  Although it was unsettling, I didn't have a problem with the morality of that either.  McKenzie's dying wish had been carried out by his friend.  He was displayed in a dignified manner as a counterpoint to his immortality in paint, and was certainly the most effective memento mori I've ever encountered.  Death is, after all, the stuff of life - or the stuffing, in Orville's case.  

Difficult to be sure, but I can't help thinking that Orville's dying wish, had he been able to articulate it, might well have been to fly amongst those plump and juicy pigeons.  Orville is dead; long live Orville!

Still Lives

You can’t get much older than dead
and Diogenes is non-living proof

twenty-six years off this mortal coil
and he’s as distant as Lindow Man,

a scrim of leathery skin and sticks
a nomad’s long abandoned tent

exhibited in a glass case
but no kiss will wake him.

He’s a mummified relic, fossilised footprint
surrounded by his mates

vagrants, gays, disabled children,
the not-so-quick, the dead

no-better-than-they-should-be muses  
gazing out from the Academy’s walls

holding the eye, defying the viewer
to look away.

A derelict re-envisaged 
translated by empathy and paint into pensive

sitter, Death the Jester
his own pipe-smoking ghost 

a tramp dignified as Rembrandt
and bristling with life

the sprightly presence
death’s society denied him.  

©Deborah Harvey 2011, 2012



  1. Great coupling of poem with photo, the black and white one especially. But the poem is the main attraction. It's so good I want to read it again and again though or because I still don't feel I've got it all.

    1. Thanks, Larry. It's a work in progress - there are bits I still feel inclined to tweak but am not sure how. One of those poems that takes a long time to ripen. Do look out for any mention of Lenkiewicz - a fascinating man in many respects and not accorded the importance as an artist that he should have as his work is deemed unfashionable. Dru and I loved the exhibition!

  2. You are right about Orville, too. Though my computer isn't up to you-tube speed, I can see the project raising both hackles and cackles and all kinds of questions. Jansen seems to share a kind of nobility with Lenkiewicz which enobles their deeply-respected friends in death. Re-reading your previous post about Lenkiewicz opened my eyes wider to begin to better appreciate his greatness!
    Also, the Lenkiewicz Book Project suggests an approach I and my family could follow in attempting to learn more about my great-uncle the German figurative artist Rudolf Neugebauer (ca. 1891-1960) whose life and work were no doubt more conventional but certainly memorable for more than his fulfillment of a commission to sculpt a bust of Hitler -- from life -- in 1942, though that is a story in itself. The trail is also much colder, though some excellent work survives.

    1. I actually lost a Facebook friend over my championing of Orville, believe it or not! Anyhow, my favourite bit of the video is right at the start - when he takes off and the fur on his front legs is fluttering. What cat wouldn't love that!

      I love Lenkiewicz for his wit and his clear-eyed humanity. Technically - as far as I can tell - he was extremely accomplished.

      How fascinating about your Great-Uncle! Neugebauer sounds like quite a Jewish name to me. Reminds me of my friend's mother who presented Hitler with a posy of flowers at the age of three.

      My great uncle was a painter of landscapes and still lives, but was only really known locally.

  3. Neugebauer seems to be a fairly common German name, so it's quite possible some intermarried Jews would have the name. So far I have found two other Rudolf Neugebauers whose artistic activities overlap -- an older Viennese one who studied Asian carpet-making (which also interested my great-uncle), and a much younger one who has painted some of the same landscape subjects "our Rudolf" did. There hasn't been any competition for sculpting the bust of Hitler, understandably enough. As his widow told me, it was a commission (presented by the Gestapo) that he could not refuse and live. Living it down was not possible either. So he, who had painted classical portraits of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, bargained for a live sitting and got it.

    1. I take your point absolutely, Larry. What else could he have done? Refusing to comply was tantamount to signing your death warrant.

      My friend's grandparents refused to let their son join the Hitler Youth. The elder son, who was a conscript, was sent to the Eastern front. They never saw or heard from him again.

      Is this your Rudolf?

  4. Deborah, although I had no luck with your specific link, elsewhwere has a few examples of our Rudolf's work. He was indeed born in Muenster in 1892 and died in Hamburg in 1961. His widow, Else Raabe-Neugebauer, a concert violinist, visited my family in New York soon after his death. I stayed with her in Hamburg in her fourth floor walk-up in 1973 for three weeks. She died in 1988 at 99.