Are these 19th century LOLCats?

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

You might think that LOLCats, those funny and often grammatically incorrect images of felines doing and saying funny things, is a recent phenomenon, but a 19th century Japanese woodcut currently on display in New York reveals otherwise.

As Gizmodo reported on Monday, the woodcut is entitled “Popular Hotspring Spa (of Cats)” and was created by artist Utagawa Yoshifuji in 1880 and is currently on display of New York’s Japan Society as part of an exhibition called “Life of Cats.” It is one of about 100 Edo Period woodcuts at the exhibit, many of which wouldn’t seem out of place on I Can Has Cheezburger?

“Since arriving in Japan aboard Japanese ships transporting sacred Buddhist scriptures from China in the mid-sixth century, cats have proceeded to purr and paw their way into the heart of Japanese life, folklore, and art,” the Japan Society website said. “Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection illustrates the depth of this mutual attraction by mining the wealth of bravura depictions of cats to be found in ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo Period.”

Ninety featured ukiyo-e prints are on loan from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Foundation, and that those prints are complemented with prints, paintings, sculptures, and other works borrowed from US-based collections. “With cross-cultural and multi-generational appeal,” the exhibit “takes viewers on a wild ride through Japan’s love affair with our feline friends,” the group added.

The exhibition is divided into five sections (Cats and People, Cats as People, Cats versus People, Cats Transformed and Cats and Play) and some pieces can be viewed online. The event will run through June 7, but there will be two rotations, as roughly 50 of the featured pieces are slated to be removed and replaced on the weekend of April 27 and 28, the Japan Society noted.

Animals in party hats

Japanese artists aren’t the only ones who created early precursors to LOLcats, however. In the 1870s, UK photographer Harry Pointer created a series of images featuring his pet cats in several humorous poses in which they mimicked human activities such as riding a tricycle, roller skating and even taking a picture using a camera. He also added captions to make the images funnier or more appealing, and had created more than 100 of them as of 1872.

While Pointer was a trailbazer in the field of funny feline fotography – sorry, photography – a man by the name of Harry Whittier Frees “took things to the next level,” according to an April 2012 article by io9. “His foray into bizarro animal photography began in 1906, when he put a party hat on the family cat during dinner.”

“The hilarity was so overwhelming that Frees expanded his portfolio to include other fauna,” including dogs and rabbits, the website noted. The American-born photographer and author of the book Animal Land on the Air “attributed his success as a photographer to his gentle rapport with his animal subjects,” they added.

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