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To balance yesterday’s post about the dog star, today we feature three whimsical cat paintings by Tokyo born surrealist Tokuhiro Kawai. I am calling Kawai a surrealist, but perhaps it would be more correct to call him a painter of fantastical narrative: all of his works seem to have some sort of magical fairy-tale story behind them. Although the three monarchical cats shown here are lighthearted, some of Kawai’s other paintings are much more melodramatic and feature fearsome conflict between devils, angels, and heroes.
Each of these paintings features a Scottish Fold housecat either wearing a crown or being ceremonially coronated. The little black and white cat is so self-assured and regal that we hardly wonder at its elevation to the throne. With broad gleaming eyes and fur that seems as though the viewer could touch it, the cat seems real. One wonders if perhaps it belongs to the artist.
Kawai has a particular gift for painting animals and many of his compositions are filled from top to bottom with flamingos, foxes, owls, ammonites, and pelicans. Cats seem to be his favorite and they are pictured as conquerors, tyrants, and gods—in one of his pictures a feisty cat has killed an angel like it was a songbird and is holding the limp corpse in his fangs while standing like a stylite atop a classical column. Fortunately the cat in these three paintings does not seem as violent. The little kitty is clearly dreaming about the trappings of power—what it would be like to wield absolute authority and be pampered all day. Knowing my own pet housecat’s personality, I believe that such an interpreatation of feline psychology is not entirely a stretch.
I have always been fascinated by saber-toothed animals. Only a few saber toothed creatures remain in today’s world (like the estimable walruses and a few tiny saber-toothed deer) but in fearsome ages past, the design was widespread. Most readers are probably familiar with the smilodons, the magnificent saber-toothed cats which hunted the megafauna of Pleistocene North and South America, however the story of the saber-toothed cats intersects the story of another giant saber-toothed predator which was nearly as fearsome and even stranger. Thylacosmilus was a genus of saber toothed marsupial predators which ruled South America during the Miocene and Pliocene. Like the smilodons, Thylacosmilidae were large, agile predators which used their long fangs to slash the throats of huge prey. Unlike Smilodons, Thylacosmilidae were marsupials which gave birth to a tiny helpless larva which they then nurtured in a pouch.
The prominent teeth of Thylacosmilus were a result of convergent evolution and the creatures did not share any direct ancestors with cats since the divergence of placental and marsupial mammals (deep in the depths of the Mesozoic). Thylacosmilus’ teeth were also different in that they continuously grew throughout the animal’s life. The teeth were probably worn down as the predators gnawed on bones. Additionally Thylacosmilidae possessed scabbard-like bone flanges built into its lower jaw to protect its teeth (a feature missing entirely from Smilodons). Who knows what sort of noises Thylacosmilidae made with these peculiarly shaped mouths? For millions of years Thylacosmilidae lorded over the strange mammals of South America. The glyptodonts (and possibly other armadillos) developed their armor to ward off the mighty beasts. However the fickle play of tectonics undid the mighty killers.
In the beginning of the Pliocene, a land bridge joined North America and South America and suddenly the true cats arrived on what had been an island continent. As the climate dried out, Smilodons competed directly with Thylacosmilidae. Strange new herbivores appeared to displace the old prey animals. The Great American Interchange of long sundered mammalian lineages proved too much for the saber toothed marsupials. Thylacosmilidae were giant and fierce but they were no match for invasive cats.