Felt Cute. Might Delete Later 

Somerset House unveils CUTE exhibition timed to coincide with 50th anniversary of Hello Kitty 

Somerset House in London presents ‘CUTE: An Exhibition Exploring the Irresistible Rise of Cuteness’, the first major exhibition to explore the phenomenon of CUTEness in contemporary culture. CUTE features contributions from over 50 artists, as well as curated exhibits of culturally iconic memorabilia exemplifying the cult of CUTE, such as My Little Pony, Silvanian Families, Cry Baby, Tamagotchi and Baby Yoda. The exhibition launches as Hello Kitty celebrates her 50th birthday, and features an extensive collection of Hello Kitty ephemera since the character’s creation by Sanrio in Japan in 1974, much of it from the official Sanrio archives. 

CUTE at Somerset House. Photo by Lee Sharrock

CUTE brings together contemporary artworks with cultural phenomena from the past few decades including toys, clothes, video games and social media. Curatorially the concept of CUTE is dissected into five themes; Cry Baby, Play Together, Monstrous Others, Sugar-Coated Pill and Hypersonic. There are also new artworks commissioned specifically for the exhibition including Hattie Stewart’s Hello Kitty sculpture, Hannah Diamond’s immersive installation inspired by teenage sleepovers, and a Hello Kitty disco.

At the entrance of CUTE is a series of Graphic Thought Facility’s AI-generated Kitten artworks that set the tone for the candy-coloured, cat-saturated exhibition.  Another room is themed around a quote from Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the world wide web. Berners Lee, when asked to name one use of the internet that he did not anticipate, answered with a single word: ‘kittens’. This quote prompts a curated display of cat paintings by the Victorian artist Louis Wain, who was popular at a time when cats had only just been domesticated as pets, and pre-empted the 20th century invention of Hello Kitty and the 21st century viral Internet obsession with the cuteness of kittens. Contemporary artists including Karen Kiliminik and Andy Holden present a fine art version of Hello Kitty.  

Karen Kilimnik painting. Photo by Lee Sharrock

As part of its exploration of the early beginnings of cuteness, CUTE  spotlights the development of the Japanese culture of cuteness ‘kawaii’. Featuring artefacts rarely exhibited in the UK, including printed materials, figurines, illustrated handkerchiefs, sketchbooks and more from the archive of the Yayoi Museum in Tokyo, CUTE charts kawaii’s origins in the design of products from the 1910s to the 1950s geared towards schoolgirls and young women as consumers, which incorporated western motifs such as mushrooms and castles, and depicted a romanticised idea of girlhood. CUTE also foregrounds the rise of Japan’s female illustrators of the 1960s, who challenged the innocent cuteness expressed by their male predecessors, adding elements of fun and flirtation to their work. Artists featured in this section include; Yumeji Takehisa, Kaichi Kobayashi, Katsudi Matsumoto, Junichi Nakahara and Rune Naito.

Senior Curator Claire Catterall says: “Cute is undeniably the most prominent aesthetic of our times. Yet, it has only now begun to be taken seriously. Like a tiny kitten waiting to pounce, its power and influence has slowly crept up on us and today its adorable aesthetic infiltrates almost every aspect of our daily lives.  But as it saturates our digitally mediated age, cuteness feeds and compels us in ways that suggest there is so much more to it than its adorable and seemingly harmless exterior might imply.” 

As well as interactive rooms featuring gaming and digital art, the exhibition presents paintings, sculpture, film and costume by established and emerging contemporary artists including; Mark Leckey, Sean-Kierre Lyons, AYA TAKANO, Mike Kelley, Karen Kilimnik, Nayland Blake, Cosima von Bonin, Hannah Diamond, Ed Fornieles, Juliana Huxtable, Rachel Maclean, Julien Ceccaldi, Paige K. B., Isaac Lythgoe, Alake Shilling, Wong Ping, Liv Preston, CFGNY, Ram Han, Maggie Lee, Bunny Rogers, Flannery Silva and Andy Holden, as well as Somerset House Studios artists Chris Zhongtian Yuan and Sin Wai Kin Sian Fan.  

CUTE at Somerset House. Photo by Lee Sharrock

The exhibition is destined to be a hit with kids, teenagers and cat lovers, or anyone looking for a diversion from the heaviness of the real world into a sugar-coated parallel universe of Cuteness.  

‘CUTE: An Exhibition Exploring the Irresistible Rise of Cuteness’ is at Somerset House Embankment Galleries from 25th January – 14th April, 2024. 


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