Ashley Kronebusch, Staff Writer
Anyone who has been in a big, public space after it was closed off knows what a surreal and liminal experience it can be. Hallways and galleries that normally overflow with people take on a haunting, yet strangely calming atmosphere when empty. It is in this feeling that Cats of the Louvre, a graphic novel by Taiyo Matsumoto, steeps itself, basking in the off-kilter world of the Louvre after dark.
Cats of the Louvre tells two intertwining stories, each painting the museum in a different light. First is the human story of the museum tour guide, Cécile, after she encounters an old night watchman who asks her if she has “ever heard the voices of the paintings.” The second story is of the titular cats who live in an attic above the museum and the runt Snowbébé, who can disappear into paintings.
Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist Taiyo Matsumoto’s distinct style is immediately recognizable in Cats of the Louvre, combining beautiful detailed backgrounds with expressively charlotte character art. Although Matsumoto’s art is realistic, it also has a wonderfully gestural quality to it, abandoning more traditional cleanliness for greater expression and emotion. This style gives the whole work a larger than life, yet ethereal quality. On the whole, Cats of the Louvre is a technical tour de force, as Matsumoto shows off his incredible understanding of lighting and value.
Although the story is not traditionally gripping, it makes up for it via a strong sense of atmosphere and compelling characters. Matsumoto switches between depicting the cats naturalistically and anthropomorphically, showing the sphinx cat as a long and lean pseudo-human and Snowbébé is a little boy with cat ears. This switch in style, which sometimes even happens in the middle of a page, makes these cats all the more endearing to the reader and creates room for whimsy as the humanoid cats do bizarre acrobatics to represent their feline escapades.
Cats of the Louvre is very charming, but the story is very melancholic, leaving me with a similar feeling. It deals in broad themes of existence, meaning and loss, asking questions but not giving any real answers. The book doesn’t overstay its welcome, ending at a bit over 400 pages, but I do wish it spent more time on its last act to make the conclusion feel more satisfying and less forced.
Cats of the Louvre is weird, touching, and beautiful. Through its surreal world of mysterious cats, it tells a resonant human story as provocative as it is fleeting. Cats of the Louvre is not just for cat people, or for artists, but for anyone with a curious and thoughtful heart.
This article was originally published in the September 20, 2019 issue.