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Zarathustra: the story behind the viral cat pictures

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"Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci (1503-1506). Artwork by Svetlana Petrova & Zarathustra the Cat / FatCatArt.com Original link of work: http://fatcatart.com/2012/01/otkyta-tajna-ulybki-dzhokondy/?lang=en

In recent years, there has been a revitalization in the popularity of old paintings with the spread of photoshopped parodies of famous paintings from prominent art periods. One of the artists behind this movement is Svetlana Petrova, a Russian artist who decided to insert her big ginger cat Zarathustra into famous masterpieces in her project Fat Cat Art. 

Petrova began this series in 2010 after the death of her mother left her in a depressive slump for two years. One of her friends suggested making an art project with Zarathustra, the spoiled cat her mother had left her. Zarathustra’s tendency to lie on his back and make funny faces inspired Petrova to take photos of him and insert them into paintings. Since she and many of her friends found the results funny, Petrova made a website for the project, which she then promptly forgot about in favor of a different project. A few months later, Petrova was surprised to find out that the pictures she had made with her cat had spread all over the internet.

To make these paintings, Petrova takes high-resolution digital reproductions of artworks and carefully inserts of a photo of her cat in a certain pose, often taking months to get a photo where her cat’s position and expression fit perfectly into the painting’s composition. 

Then, she prints the pictures onto natural canvas the same size as the original artworks, then paints over them with textured gels and oil paints, matching the original colors as closely as possible. Petrova  sometimes even resorts to using very rare historical pigments made from precious stones such as lapis lazuli in order to match historical paintings such as Vermeer’s “Milkmaid”. The results look so natural and authentic that they are sometimes confused with the original painting.

These paintings have become so popular that these internet memes have made their way into displays in the physical world, from Petrova’s “Russian Extremes – From Icons To I-Cats” exhibit in Abingdon to her “Meows in Museums” exhibition in Singapore.

Through her artworks, Petrova strives to entertain people while also introducing them to famous paintings and art history. Despite the high quality of her work, she fully embraces her project’s memetic qualities. As she puts it:

In these historical surroundings, Zarathustra still stays a contemporary Internet kitty, a meme, a “LOLcat”. In his Mona Lisa’s version, you see a girl with a cat posing for a photographer at the balcony. The cat is bored and wants to escape. Everybody has seen this scene somewhere!

Consider visiting Zarathustra’s official site at fatcatart.com or even one of his exhibits and see art through an entirely different lens. 

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