Wednesday 2 November 2016

The Cat Museum in Kotor, Montenegro

In July 2015, I visited the historic town of Kotor, as part of a greater trip of Montenegro. While well-preserved and interesting, I found Kotor to be too much of a tourist town, like Venice; full of aimless-looking Western visitors, crowded restaurants, overpriced food and banal gift shops.

In the midst of this maelstrom of corniness, one place stood out like an oasis in a desert. It was this quiet little building next to a local library. A sign announced it to be the "Cats Museum" of Kotor. 

Intrigued, we got tickets and got in. It was worth every penny (or every Euro-cent.)

Derived from the historic collection of a local duchess, the museum was devoted to cat-related memorabilia, mostly in the form of historic postcards. I realised that contemporary society's infatuation with cute cats was nothing new - the fad was popular in different cultures for centuries. In several small rooms, wall upon wall was decorated with hundreds of cat-themed artefacts, all arranged in meticulous detail.

These two cards accompanied the visitors with explanations of the exhibit in English. You can view them in full-size to read the text. I tried to take pictures of every item in the museum that I found interesting, resulting in the following selection:

This was one of the oldest items on display, an old German encyclopaedia with an woodcut of a cat.

Another old woodcut, with a poem and a humorous illustration of a grumpy cat. I guessed that the caption "MOMUS," seen in the centre, was the cat's name.

Some pieces in the collection were from, or about Turkey, which occupied a part of Montenegro until the eighteenth century. In this woodcut, a janissary officer fed a perfectly nefarious cat that resembled a ball of hair with a monkey's face.

A more recent Turkish artefact depicted a baby playing with a cat. This colour print, from the final years of the Ottoman Empire, was an example of the beautiful and much-underrated illustrative talent in the Ottoman popular press.

Another Ottoman souvenir, from turn-of-century Salonica, showed a vendor of sheep's livers, lungs and hearts, being watched eagerly by a feline companion. "To watch one as a cat watches a piece of liver," is a popular expression in Turkish, still used today to describe leering people.

The museum had more feline postcards from non-Western cultures. The section on Japan featured dozens of illustrated postcards such as this.

More Japanese cat-love, in the form of a hand-coloured photograph, featuring a geisha and her orange "neko."

Another geisha and her cat.

We moved on to the largest part of the museum, which was devoted to European postcards. Here, a black cat featured almost as an afterthought to the portrait of an art-nouveau beauty.

A German girl with two chunky kittens.

Another lady with a kitten.

There was a whole genre of "cats & ladies" themed postcards such as these.

Some illustrated cards were quite bizarre. Here, two anthropomorphic kittens were having a ride in a carriage pulled by... two more kittens?! What kind of strange world could have begat this scene? Were the carriage-kittens a different species, perhaps not as intelligent as the man-kittens? Or were they slaves? Or, was it some kind of day-job? They all looked very happy, so I did't think the carriage-kittens were slaves.

Another interesting series was this brightly-coloured selection of German cards, depicting different wild and domestic cats. This was a "black house cat."

A regular house cat...

...and a rarer kind, a "Lybian cat," labeled Felis orcreata. Today, these animals were classified as a sub-species of the wild cat, Felis silvestris.

Another strange fantasy collage, featuring a wooden carp, overlooked by a kitten wearing a silly paper cap.

On a German postcard, an uncanny feline minstrel sang; "O fair moon, you pass so quietly."

There were a lot of strange French New Years' cards. Here, two cats were building (and adoring) a strangely humanoid snowman, a dead ringer for the infamous "moon face" emoji of the mobile smartphone-era.

Why were the cats trying to build a snow man? Shouldn't they be building a snow cat instead? Was this ersatz-snowman some sort of different, living being? Perhaps I shouldn't have applied too much logic to these puerile, turn-of-the-century fantasy worlds.

Another perplexing French fantasy featured the face of a woman pasted onto the body of an obese black cat.

Two lovers were watching the sunset in a less-puzzling example of anthropomorphism.

Have a joyful Christmas - with these strange, slant-eyed cats with rabbit hands!

A beautiful, hand-illustrated card with a blue cat.

A more "vanilla" cat card from the early 1900s.

Some European designs had a very cheerful, graphic quality about them.

A naive Italian postcard celebrating "a million cats."

A nice American card for Halloween. The two cats and the pumpkin looked like the eyes and nose of a clown-figure.

This hand-painted British card, with its lemon-yellow cat and stylised plants, was masterpiece of naive art.

A French card showed swallows abducting, or bringing home, a diminutive and angry black cat.

Black cats lent themselves to a lot of stylisation in French postcards.

This was the fattest black cat in the museum.

Another French card, showing a cat on the moon.

This French card was from Cannes.

Cats also featured in political themes. This cartoon on the cover of a French magazine satirised that country's political parties in the 1950s.

Another political cartoon from World War I, showing the "Belgian Mouse" halting the advance of the evil German Cat. This was one of the few items on exhibit that vilified cats.

Another memento from WWI, showing French infantrymen cuddling extremely chubby cats. This photo also reminded me of the mind-numbing horrors these soldiers must have gone through in battle.

Some postcards were really strange in reminding us the changing semiology (I hate that word) of symbols over time. Here and below, cats appeared in conjunction with swastika signs.

Before the Second World War and the rise of Nazism, the swastika was a sign of good fortune, and was used in all sorts of corresponding situations. Prior to the Nazis, the occultist Theosophy society, the Finnish Air Force, various sports teams and even Carlsberg company had adopted the sign as part of their logos.

A popular urban legend suggested that Hitler consciously reversed the swastika to highlight the evil of his regime, but as we see in these cards, there was no "right" alignment of the symbol, and people used them every which way.

There was also a section devoted to feline philately. Paraguayan cat stamps peered out from behind one another, as if stalking invisible prey.

More cat-stamps from the Philippines and pre-9-11-era Afghanistan.

Another section was devoted to film stars and their feline companions. This was Agnes Esterhazy, a Hungarian actress of the inter-war era.

Another star of the silent age, Ruth Weyher.

Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican film star. She once co-starred with Elvis. Here, she was co-starring with a terrified-looking black cat.

The association between beautiful women and "pussies" ultimately led to its culmination in a set of erotic postcards at the rearmost part of the museum.

This nubile beauty was posing with what was possibly the chubbiest cat in Paris.

Another sensual postcard, a bare-breasted beauty with an impish cat.

There were tons of erotic postcards like these. In most cases, the expressions of the cats were more interesting than the women themselves. This cat bore an adorable look of absolute helplessness.

Another beautiful woman with a reluctant cat.

The cat in this card was really strange - it looked more like a bad toy (look at those whiskers!) than a real animal.

The museum had many more postcards and other items on display, and I strongly recommend any visitors to Kotor to go see it. It may, in fact, be the only relevant point of interest in that much-overrated town.

Here is the museum's website.
Here is its location on the map.