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"Impressions of the seas"

Essay by LACMA's Michael VanHartingsveldt

As an island nation, Japan teems with live saltwater and freshwater specimens. A visit to the centuries-old Tsukiji fish market demonstrates the importance of fish and fishing culture to the national identity. Samurai retainers in the mid-19th century, well-versed in ink painting due to their standard education in calligraphy and the literary arts and their knowledge of ukiyo-e woodblock printing, melded the two into an illustrative trophy using familiar materials: paper and lampblack sumi ink.


The word gyotaku can be broken into its two parts: ‘gyo’ meaning ‘fish’ and ‘taku’ meaning ‘rubbing’ or ‘impression’. Just as the Chinese would make impressions of stone carvings to preserve them, the Japanese of the mid-19th century developed fish printing to record the size of a notable catch. While historical records are scarce, the use of ink and paper pinpoints the origins of gyotaku to East Asia, where these materials were readily available. And though it was once thought that gyotaku was a Chinese import to Japan, recent scholarship shows the converse to be true, and even then did the medium enter China only in the past century. While gyotaku was once a term which specifically referred to prints of actual fish, it has since become somewhat of an umbrella term encompassing prints of any aquatic or terrestrial specimen, from cephalopods and crustaceans to seaweeds and deciduous foliage.


The surface to be printed is hereon called a fish due to its prominence as the subject of printing. The direct method of fish printing, called chokusetsu-hо̄ (literally “direct application method“), produces a mirror image of the fish. Ink is first applied to the fish using a brush or roller, then dabbed to avoid any blotches or bleeding of the ink. A piece of paper is then laid atop the fish and the fingers or an applicator tool (J: tanpо) are used to put a soft pressure on the fish to transfer the image. The result is a bold, crisp print with clear details of fins and scales.
Only the eye is painted in later, as it is too gelatinous to take and transfer ink. The indirect method, kansetsu-hо̄ (literally “indirect application method“), delivers a much softer and smoother image. A thin paper is laid atop a fish and gently pressed into the naturally occurring details, such as the gaps between the scales and the ridges of the fins. Ink is then applied to the relief using a tanpo. The result is an exact copy of the fish with clearly yet subtly defined edges and details. The third method, devised by one Hidenosuge Tanaka and called tensha-hо̄ (literally “transfer print method“), enables a fish print to be affixed to a surface typically unable to receive a print. The process produces a similarly crisp mirror image as chokusetsu-ho, but on a carrier surface, such as nylon, which is then pressed onto a harder surface to transfer the image. This technique is often used for wooden or plastic signs, or anything with a rigidity which prevents it from adequately hugging the fish contours and thus the complete transferral of ink. A final method, developed by Hideo Sato, combines the choku- and kansetsu-hо̄ techniques into a
“quick method”. A thin paper is laid atop the fish and pressed into the crevices, then ink dabbed sparingly on it. A second paper is laid atop that ensemble and pressed to transfer the image. This technique preserves the fish for eating, but is not so exact as the original methods. No one printing technique is superior to the others; it is the desired outcome which leads the artist to choose one over the others.


The oldest extant fish prints, in the collection of the Honma Museum in Sakata,
Yamagata Prefecture, date to 1868 and are said to have been commissioned by one Lord Sakai, a feudal lord with an affinity for fishing, on the occasion of a single night’s catch of legendary proportions. A majority of these depict sizeable red sea bream and were produced using both the direct and indirect methods of printing, which suggests that one technique did not predate the other as later gyotaku artists claim. For the most part, the Honma Museum prints depict saltwater fish; however, Japanese sources have recorded the existence of gyotaku depicting crucian carp from the freshwater moats of Sakata Castle.


Between those prints from Lord Sakai and the early 20th century - circa 1920s - not much survives in the way of prints. No one knows whether this is due to a lull in the practice or that none of those produced between these dates survived. However, under the auspices of printmakers such as Yutaka Aso, Seijin Murakami, and Funaji Endo, the connoisseurship of gyotaku made a resurgence in the years before the Second World War. Before the 1940s, gyotaku was done with black sumi on washi paper. The polychromatic indirect method, introduced by master Kōyō Inada, was first developed through the use of pigmented inks on silk, then on paper. This was passed on to Inada’s student Boshu Nagase after five years of training, who himself came to be a master of the polychromatic tradition.


In 1955, the Association for Gyotaku (J: Gyotaku-no-kai) was formed to promote the little known medium as a fine art. To this end, traveling exhibitions were organized to maximize exposure to the Japanese public. The following year saw the first live demonstration of gyotaku techniques to an international audience, by one Janet Canning during a gyotaku exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Dr. Yoshio Hiyama, author of the seminal text dealing with gyotaku - Gyotaku: The Art and Technique of the Japanese Fish Print - also
presented live demonstrations and workshops and made public appearances on American television and radio programs to further popularize gyotaku in North America.


The stylish yet anatomically accurate depictions of fish through gyotaku printings made the art form an optimal choice for illustrating natural history textbooks and scientific journals. It was first employed in the 1950s. However, the transmission of gyotaku techniques were not solely through the efforts of the science community or the Gyotaku-no-kai: individual practitioners also made a concerted effort to bring the artform to the enthusiastic audience in the USA. Chiura Obata trained in both the western and Japanese painting traditions, then traveled to the United States to study art. After a short return to Japanese soil following his father’s
death, Obata took up a position as a professor emeritus of art at the University of California, Berkeley. Exhibitions featuring his fish prints were well-received; a print of a steelhead was even published in an issue of the Oakland, California Tribune in 1932.


Another big step in the dissemination of gyotaku in the United States occurred with the establishment of the Nature Printing Society (NPS) in 1976 by Christopher Dewees, Frederick (Eric) Hochberg, and the late Robert Little. Originally intended by the founders to be a small club for gyotaku connoisseurs, the community grew into a non-profit organization with membership from around the world. At its onset, the NPS stressed that all members practice gyotaku in the
traditional method, with no retouching (read: adding details with a tool) save for instances where the eye had to be removed. Then, and only then, could the eye be added by brush. The society had been heavily involved in the publication and demonstration of gyotaku practices, whether it be in the form of articles, books, workshops and classes, and exhibitions.


A major exhibition of gyotaku, ‘Pressed on Paper: Fish Rubbings and Nature Prints’, began at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and toured North America from April 1981 through February 1985, after which it continued in Australia until October 1986. The exhibition tour marks the first great collaboration of American gyotaku artists with American institutions, as it was supported by the NPS, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and
the Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service.
Not twenty years later, the art of gyotaku evolved to incorporate technological advances into the practice. The active import of internationally produced papers - from non-traditional producers such as Thailand and Bhutan - and the development of papers capable of receiving toners and printer inks has allowed gyotaku to ‘go digital’. Some artists create the images through a traditional method, then import the result to a photo-processing program for retouching and other manipulations. Others scan the raw source - whether fish or leaves or some other natural thing or object - to their computer and work it to produce a print-like result.


This is then printed directly onto a computer or traditional paper, or can be made into a 3D relief which can itself be inked and printed onto paper.
While some artists have seamlessly meshed the traditional art of gyotaku with digital devices, others have preferred to maintain the original techniques and adapted it to new materials. Genny and Shane Anderson, for example, use paints and inks to print onto fabrics (usually polyester or blends). Honolulu-based artist Reid Yoshida presses his subjects into wet clay and finishes it with colored glazes in an attempt to fuse the essence of gyotaku with the durability of ceramics. Naoki Hayashi and Dane Kai Kondo, both also working out of Hawai’i, have combined their love of surf culture with gyotaku: Hayashi by printing onto surfboards and
Kondo by collaborating with Billabong to create a gyotaku-inspired clothing line.

But as some gyotaku artists bring the practice forward into the 21st century by involving the contemporary products, others remain the old guard by maintaining the traditional techniques. Dwight Hwang is one of these, as he works solely with traditional materials in the chokusetsu-hō method, with fish either freshly caught or flash-frozen quickly thereafter. He has worked with both freshwater and saltwater specimens acquired on his own fishing trips or through Californian fish distributors and Japanese seafood importers. Through his own work, Dwight has perfected strategies to ensure anatomical accuracy while still showing the true beauty of the fish. One such is the removal of unwieldy or otherwise extravagant pectoral fins which do not allow for an easy transfer of details, as can be found on the lionfish. Dwight cuts off the fin, prints the fish without it, then prints the fin alone in its most attractive position on top of the first layer. Any unnatural foreground-background overlap resulting from this strategy is dealt with using Dwight’s second ‘cheat’: affixing strategically torn paper fragments to areas where ink transferred but should not be. This in lieu of the more prominent method of retouching areas with white paint to emphasize patterns. Dwight’s minimal use of sumi and paper for touch-ups has led him to instead manipulate the fish itself by removing scales in striped and spotted areas to emphasize them through a darker ink transfer. Aside from this technical prowess, Dwight has brought a unique type of perspective to his prints. Many gyotaku artists - past and contemporary - present a straight-on view of the subject in its natural orientation. And while Dwight has done this in many of his own prints, he has also successfully produced images
where the subject is seen from a three-quarters view or even from above. Dwight moves the art of gyotaku forward while retaining the techniques of its founders in mid-19th century Japan.

For further reading:

*Auberjonois, F. ‘A Japanese Fish Story’. Scope, vol 4. 1954.
*Cave, R. Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. Mark Batty Publishers. 2010.
*Dewees, C. The Printer’s Catch: An Artist’s Guide to Pacific Coast Edible Marine Animals. Sea Challengers, Inc. 1984.
*Dewees, C; Hochberg, F; Geary, I; and Little, R. ‘Foreign News’. Nature Printing Society Newsletter. 1977.
*Fukuchi, M; and Marchant HJ. Antarctic Fishes: Illustrated in the Gyotaku Method by Boshu Nagase. Rosenburg Publishing, Ltd. 2006.
*Goodwin, D. ‘Picture the Fish’. Journal of the American Museum of Natural History, vol 65. 1956.
*Hiyama, Y. Gyotaku: The Art and Technique of the Japanese Fish Print. University of Washington Press. 1964.
*Hiyama, Y; Inada, K; Nagata, I; Sato, H; and Shimizu, Y. Gyotaku: An Art of Fish Print. Kodansha. 1972.
*Hochberg, F. The Art and Technique of Nature Printing. Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service. 1981.
*Little, RW. Creative Concepts in Nature Printing. Hoechstetter Printing Company. 1976.
*Ramirez, R. Gyotaku: Its Origins and Relationship with Art and Science. Universidade do Porto. 2014.
*Ross, M.E. Nature Art with Chiura Obata. Carolhoda Books. 2000.
*Stephens, A.R. The New-Wave 20th Century Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection. Bamboo Publishing, Ltd. 1993.