Photo of Peter Milton with his cat
Frontispiece, The Primacy of Touch (1993)
Peter Milton:
Cats in his Artworks

Peter Y. Chou

Cat Man & Himalayan Cat
in Les Belles et La Bête I (1977)

Preface: "The Pop to Present" exhibit (March 18-August 16, 2009) at Stanford Cantor Arts Center featured five prints of Peter Milton's Interiors (1984-1991). I was most intrigued by Interiors VI: Soundings (1989) with its multi-layered spaces and hidden Biblical symbolisms. It was not until my third viewing that I discovered a cat under Colette's table gazing at the fish tank. This was included in my poem "An Augustinian Awakening— Peter Milton's Interiors VI Soundings" and Notes. When cats were found in Interiors I, II, III, the numbers 1+2+3=6 seemed to reflect the 6-sided hexagonal floor tile patters of Interiors VI which triggered my Augustinian awakening— six is a perfect number which Saint Augustine attributes God for creating the world in six days. Looking through three Peter Milton books in Stanford's Art Library, 15 cats were found in ten of his artworks. Details of these cats were scanned with links to the originals on Peter Milton's web site. They are listed below with some stories and symbolism of cats. I did Cat Cities (1998) when teaching students about web design. Had I known about Peter Milton's artwork of cats, I'd would have surely included them in "Cat Art" like those cat paintings of Pierre Auguste Renoir.

Cats in Peter Milton's Interior Prints (1984-1989)

Peter Milton: Detail, Interiors I:
Family Reunion

Peter Milton: Detail, Interiors II:
Stolen Moments

Peter Milton: Detail, Interiors III:
Time with Celia

Peter Milton: Detail, Interiors VI:
Unlike his earlier artworks, where Milton places his cats at the center of his prints, the cats in Interiors are almost hidden. In Interiors I: Family Reunion (1984), the cat is at the lower left corner with its ear and tail outside the frame. In Interiors II: Stolen Moments (1986), the black cat is on the floor next to a pillar with its tail and chin outside the frame. In Interiors III: Time with Celia (1986), the cat is high up on the staircase almost invisible above Celia sitting on the sofa below. Finally, in Interiors VI: Soundings (1989), the cat hides under Colette's table at the lower right corner gazing up at the fish tank.

Cats in Peter Milton's Earlier Artworks (1965-1982)

Esme's October Window (1965)

Julia at the Window (1965)
“Esme's October Window was Milton's first print to be done entirely from direct observation. The scene was from his studio window in Baltimore. It marks the introduction of architectural elements into Milton's work, as well as the first living creature, Esme, at left, was Edith Milton's cat before her marriage to Peter. Julie, the cat at the right, was Peter's. Edith's cat was named after the Salinger story "To Esme with Love and Squalor", while Julie, shown here and in Julia at the Window, derived her name from Peter's grandmother Julia, with a nod to Strindberg's "Miss Julie". (Literary and musical references and inferences abound in the Milton household vocabularies.) Here Esme stalks to the right outside the window.” (Prints by Peter Milton, Introduction by Kneeland McNulty, 1977, p. 6)

Daylilies (1975)

Detail, Black Cat in Daylilies
In Notes on Daylies, Milton writes “What brought the drawing to life for me was that it now incorporated a variety of planes— both literal pictorial planes and metaphorical temporal ones in which events are happening in time as well as space. These planes could be made to refer one to another, even to conduct a sort of dialogue. In my own work, the only images that interest me are those where the fact of surface, the illusion of space, and the poignancy of time coexist, intersect, and are of equal importance... Soon the suggestion of pictures-within-pictures already present in the original image began to suggest pictures-outside-pictures, and I found myself led to a much deeper dimension... Among other things, I had added the images of my own children, a reference to Dürer's Melencolia I (1514), and a quotation from Eadweard Muybridge... The cat and the man were borrowed from photographs by Thomas Eakins.” The complexity and challenging interpretations of Peter Milton's engravings have led art critics to compare his works to that of Dürer's Melencolia I (1514) and Giorgio Ghisi's Allegory of Life (1561) which have remained enigmatic even after hundreds of years. (Robert Flynn Johnson, "Choreography of Consciousness", Peter Milton: Complete Prints 1960-1996, 1996, pp. 6-7)

Detail, Black Cat, A Sky Blue Life (1976)

Detail, Cats in New Act (1982)
A Sky Blue Life (1976) is a resist-ground etching and engraving over Second Opinion (1974). The aerial view shows over a dozen blackbirds added flying over the park below. The man in a glider at the upper right corner is enlarged. Also added to the right panel are a couple dancing, three children with a balloon, and a black cat near a doorway of a staircase. New Act (second version, 1982) is a graphite drawing on drafting film with Cronaflex collage, 15' x 12" (The Primacy of Touch, 1993, p. 70). At the center is a young nude girl with giant butterfly wings and halo. To the right, is a semi-nude figure with a cat mask and the Eye of Ra above her head. Her feet shows cat claws with a black cat behind her recoiling at another cat walking toward it. Another nude woman stands behind posing like a statue. Two men seem to rise from the floor in the center, a cigar-smoking man stands with his shadow at the right. A crowd of figure stands in the distance outside some circus tent. On the wall at left is a giant framed drawing of a Nefertiti-like head with two black geese flying. On the drawing's lower frame three black birds follow three larger white birds like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Since butterfly symbolizes metamorphosis, there is some mythological transformations going on in New Act.

Detail, Himalayan Cat
in Les Belles et La Bête I (1977)

Detail, White Cat
in Les Belles et La Bête I

Detail, Cat Man
in Les Belles et La Bête I
Les Belles et La Bête I: The Rehearsal (1977) is a 20" x36" etching & engraving on copper plate. The Beast is a well-dressed cat man with cigarette in his right hand and book on his lap, sitting by the door between two rooms. The backroom shows costumed characters rehearsing for a play. The room in front shows three "Beauties" as young nude maidens sleeping on a furry carpet. A Himalayan cat on the carpet gazes directly at us, Another white cat with eyes glancing upward lies at the carpet's edge to the right. Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) is a traditional fairy tale first published in France by Mme Villeneuve in 1740. A film version La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau (1946) starred Jean Marais and Josette Day. The giant white flower at the lower right corner of Milton's print may refer to the rose in the fairy tale that Beauty's father plucked from the Beast's castle garden. Milton's comments on Les Belles et La Bête I: “One of the more contemporary emblems of sexual exploitation is the Freudian analyst. All the B & B's contain a strong central figure as a protector of the other, more vulnerable figures. In B & B I, the figure is a mysterious and elegant cat-man, in B & B II, a giant-lion-maned primate. In B & B III— an eight-foot painting now owned by the Currier Museum— the creature has become human, but he is an actor, saturine in aspect, seated before wolf-masks.” (Peter Milton: Complete Prints 1960-1996, 1996, p. 18)

Cat Mythology: Its eyes being variable, he cat symbolizes the varying power of the sun and the waxing and waning of the moon and the splendour of the night; it also denotes stealth; desire; liberty. As black it is lunar, evil, and death; it is only in modern times that a black cat has been taken to signify good luck. Amerindian: The wild cat portrays stealth. Celtic: Chthonic powers; funerary. Chinese: A yin animal as nocturnal; powers of evil; powers of transformation. A strange cat is unfavorable change; a black cat, misfortune, illness. Christian: Satan; darkness; lust; laziness. Egyptian: Lunar; sacred to Set as darkness; as lunar the cat can also be an attribute of Isis and of Bast, the moon; it represents pregnant women as the moon makes the seed grow in the womb. Graeco-Roman: Attribute of the lunar Diana. The goddess of liberty has a cat at her feet. Japanese: Powers of transformation; peaceful repose. Scandanavian: Attribute of Rreyja, whose chariot is drawn by cats. Witchcraft: A familiar and disguise of witches; the black cat as the witches' familiar is evil and ill luck. Cats and dogs as witches' familiars are rain-makers.
— J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols 1978, p. 30

Final Remarks: Peter Milton loves cats. In his photo from The Primacy of Touch (1993), a cat is sleeping on a circular table behind him. In his photo from Peter Milton: Complete Prints 1960-1996 (1996), a cat is beside his left elbow while he works. The cat is sacred to the ancient Egyptians and many cat sculptures were found in temples. Perhaps Peter Milton honors this sacredness in sacred geometry that pervades his artwork done with meticulous architectural precision. James Joyce told his friend David Powers "Whenever I walked through the British Museum, I was always impressed by the Assyrian and Egyptian monuments... and those Egyptian figures of birds and cats. It always occurred to me that both the Assyrians and the Egyptians understood better than we do the mystery of animal life, a mystery which Christianity has almost ignored, preoccupied as it is with man, and only regarding animals as the servants of man, I cannot remember at the moment a sympathetic mention of a dog or a cat in the New Testament... Indeed since the advent of Christianity we seem to have lost our sense of proportion, for too great stress is laid on man, 'man made in the image of God', and I think that the Babylonian star-worshipper had a greater sense of religious awe than we have." [Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce (1974), p. 48]. We find in Joyce's Ulysses (1922) page 55: "good cup of tea, the cat mewed in answer". In "About my drawings" (The Primacy of Touch, 1993, p. 15), Milton writes "I do love to draw. I feel that I am being granted membership in the Brotherhood of Merlin, conjuring forth some apparition." (Note: There is a cat story of Merlin and King Arthur, as well as a Carrie Hawks fantasy art of "Merlin Magician Cat Wizard"). In striving for a unified equilibrium in his work, Milton says "If a painting achieves this unity, there will be for me a magical and haunting sense of serenity. The more the balance is arrived at through complexity, the more satisfying the ultimate serenity becomes." (The Primacy of Touch, 1993, p. 16). With a cat near his work table, Peter Milton finds serenity in complexity that is conveyed to us as we marvel at the multi-level dimensions in his pictures and their richness of meaning.

                                        — Peter Y. Chou, Stanford Art Library, 9-9-2009

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P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (9-9-2009)