The idea of a museum after dark carries with it a certain amount of ethereal grandeur. What might we glean from the works of art away from the hustle and bustle of crowds of tourists? What odd new epiphanies might we reach? Taiyo Matsumoto (of “Tekkonkinkreet” and “Ping Pong” fame) channels this feeling into “Cats of the Louvre” with an undeniable amount of gusto. The story follows two main characters: Cécile, a tour guide working at the Louvre, and Snowbébé, a small white cat who lives with a group of fellow strays in the attic of the museum. One day, Louvre night watchman Marcel confides to Cécile and her coworker Patrick that his sister disappeared into one of the museum’s paintings decades ago, enlisting their help to find her through an exhaustive search of the artwork. Meanwhile, Snowbébé’s penchant for exploring the museum at all hours irritates Sawtooth, one of the other Louvre cats, who fears being ejected from his safe hideaway and forced to fend for himself. These two storylines soon entwine, spinning a strange tale that is as much about grief and acceptance as it is a thoughtful, meandering look at how we relate to art.
Written and illustrated by Matsumoto Taiyo
Touched up and lettered by Deron Bennett
Translated by Michael Arias
The world-renowned Louvre museum in Paris contains more than just the most famous works of art in history. At night, within its darkened galleries, an unseen and surreal world comes alive—a world witnessed only by the small family of cats that lives in the attic. Until now…
Different perspectives abound in “Cats of the Louvre.” During the day, visitors line the galleries, listening attentively to guides as they give the historical rundown on various works of art, while at night, mischievous children sneak off to play pretend among the paintings and artifacts, and cats prowl the halls and interact with the artwork in unique, alien ways. To compound this strangeness, the cats take on cartoonish, anthropomorphized appearances when speaking among themselves; when they encounter humans, they look like regular cats once again. Matsumoto’s character art has a sketchy, uncomplicated feel to it, while his backgrounds are often charcoal-like and dark, underlining the story’s constant tension between the mundane and the surreal. Through these stylistic techniques and usage of odd imagery (such as larger-than-life cats sitting on and towering over the Louvre itself), Matsumoto conveys the dreamy other-worldliness of an empty art museum, as well as the thoughts and feelings such a space might evoke in its visitors.
The comic takes us in and out of various paintings, allowing us to wallow in them, as characters both human and animal reflect on the peace and timelessness they experience within. But Matsumoto never lets us forget that such escapism has consequences. Are there not many important things connecting us to reality, Snowbébé muses, “cold,” “smelly,” and “noisy” as it is? Snowbébé, after all, is no stranger to the cruelty and unfairness of the world. Matsumoto is largely unsentimental in depicting the lives of his stray cats: they hiss and spit at passing threats, they suffer through the cold of winter, they bleed from wounds inflicted by falls and scuffles with dogs. Even when the cats appear as anthropomorphized versions of themselves (the better to accentuate their personality traits), they are hardly as appealing as cartoon cats in other media; they are elongated, bloated, oftentimes ugly and unsettling. They are also more emotionally volatile than the human cast, and much more likely to lash out in anger and sadness.
At its core, “Cats of the Louvre” is a study of character interaction through their relationships to the art around them. To varying degrees, both the human and animal casts have some connection to the museum and the art it contains; the cats see it as a home, the humans as a work environment and a place of charm and mystery. Snowbébé and Marcel’s sister Arrieta especially wrestle with their desires to immerse themselves fully in the museum’s art in order to escape a world in which they never felt they truly belonged and live in permanent happiness. Critically, though, it is through art that the cats and the humans are finally able to communicate as equals.
In “Cats of the Louvre,” characters find meaning in quiet conversation with themselves and others, in sitting in lonely places and ruminating on both the artwork that surrounds them and the world they inhabit. It’s a bizarre, melancholy story that gets at what we enjoy about contemplating art, about experiencing a work of creative genius we know will long outlast us. In its final pages, “Cats of the Louvre” suggests that while there may be consequences to these long bouts of wistful escapism, it is the darkly beautiful immortality of art that makes such passion worthwhile.