Long before Tumblr users cheered f-yeah cats, before YouTube cornered the market on kitty videos, and before lolcats craved cheezburger, cat caricatures flourished on postcards. For a penny apiece friends could share chuckles over felines imitating humans at their most playful, mischievous, tender, and flawed. Chief among their illustrators was Louis Wain (1860 - 1939), who transformed a modest hobby into a signature style featuring cats walking upright, sporting fine clothing and expressive eyes. Wain’s simple concept offered limitless permutations and inspired imitators. Some senders mailed these postcards with only the barest of inscriptions. The images required little context, as is the case with much of the cat-centric media circulating today.
Let’s consider the late-19th- and early-20th-century craze for anthropomorphized cats as a predecessor to the digital phenomena this week’s curators examine. They stemmed from a common impulse: to imbue cats with humanlike qualities. Internet users interpreting Grumpy Cat’s facial features as a furrowed brow and Ron Swanson-esque scowl produce memes unanimously assigning her a curmudgeonly personality. Will Braden renders Henri, le Chat Noir as bored, self-centered, and sullen—human qualities viewers may infer via the videos’ French narration and English subtitles. In addition to depicting humanity reflected in nature, Wain’s postcard images jarred viewers unaccustomed to seeing cats piloting automobiles. Moreover, portraying human activities with cats allowed Wain and his ilk to represent violence and chaos as humorous, precious, or mildly irreverent. For example, W. Riess’s Return from a Picnic in the Catskills shows one cat beating another with an umbrella, a scene made more palatable with fuzzy critters than with men.
Imagine such postcards causing giggles at the mailbox. Now behold the modern tendency to consume videos of other people’s cats so voraciously that they enter the cultural vernacular as humanoid celebrities with singular personalities. If they can prompt a festival, is there a place in art museums for Wain? Do today’s producers and consumers of cat culture see themselves in YouTube clips the way people did with his postcards? And where is the line separating extraordinary videos from those simply riding the wave? (That reminds me—have you seen the video with the cat on the surfboard?)