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Friday, April 10, 2015

Fishy Art

Huge Koi Fish and Lychee Fruit, Ou-Yang Guo-De                                   
There aren't too many painting subjects which I've not rendered, but I can't remember ever having painted or drawn even one fish. Unlike my son, I don't even like to fish. As a sport, I consider it in the same class as chasing a little white ball over vast sea of rolling green grass, and hardly better than watching such grass grow. But then I've always had a very low tolerance for boredom. As I was selecting images today, it occurred to me that I'm not alone insofar as having never painted fish. In fact, until the invention and gradual perfection of the photographer's art, neither had very many artists, other than rendering them in a symbolic fashion or as dead fish in a still-life. I guess that's because the damned things just wouldn't stand still and pose for the artist. Which brings to realization the fact that nearly all realistic paintings of fish are done, using photos. All of which puts painting fish in much the same category as painting young children.

Icthus, an early Christian Symbol
Prophet Jonah, Michelangelo.
Can you find the fish?
It's hard to say with any degree of certainty when and what culture painted the earliest fish depictions. My previous experience in researching "firsts" would cause me to guess either the Egyptians or the Chinese, perhaps both about the same time. And in any case it doesn't much matter. We do know for certain that the early Christians used two graceful, intertwined arcs to suggest a symbolic fish, perhaps one of the first logos ever created. Moving ahead several hundred years, did you know that Michelangelo painted a fish (and not just a small one either), on his famous Sistine Chapel ceiling? In his depiction Jonah, what would it be without a really big fish.

Pretty Graffiti Fish--Japanese Street Art
Ehon Hyaku Monogatari Isonade,
Heian period 794-1185 AD
One of the earliest cultures to embrace fish in their art were the Japanese, perhaps because their diet depended so much upon seafood. The modern-day Japanese artist, Ou-Yang Guo-De is heir to this long tradition, thou his Huge Koi Fish and Lychee Fruit (top), likely has little to do with Koi (basically glorified carp) as a dietary staple. The ancient Japanese artist, Ehon Hyaku Monogatari Isonade, from Heian period (794-1185 AD) brings us an image reminiscent of the movie Jaws (right). I think he's gonna need a bigger boat. A modern-day street art image (above) might suggest the artist could use a bigger wall. For many centuries artists tended to depict far more fishermen than they did fish. Catching fish on the open sea is considerably more dramatic than simply watching them swim around. The famed English painter J.M.W. Turner, in 1803, captured this drama in his Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor (below), without once actually painting a fish.

Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor, 1803, J.M.W. Turner
Edouard Manet, however, seems intent upon capturing the boredom I find so much a part of the sport. in his 1863 Fishing (below)--and not very well at that, I might add. Manet was one of the first major artists to embrace the use of photos in composing his paintings. During the 1860s, he was, in fact, pioneering the whole art and science of doing so. Sometimes, he was more successful than others. Fishing is one of his less successful ventures. First of all, he's created two major and one minor centers of interest, one in the lower right foreground which is seldom a good idea. Secondly, the scale of the foreground figures and the fishing figures in the boat is almost identical. And third, the brightly lit little boy on the far left bank is simply distracting--better to have deleted him, moving his fishermen to the left while reducing them in size to better counterbalance the composition. And finally, someone should have taught the man how to paint rainbows (top, left). What's a rainbow without a color spectrum?

Fishing, 1863, Edward Manet
Bigfish, Belfast, 1999, John Kindness
Sculptors have long had an affinity for our marine friends. In general fish can be very beautiful. They can also be horrendously threatening and ugly. That seems to have been especially the case for George Estreich as he snipped away, cutting up soup cans and Coke cans to create his East River Fish (below). The reddish spots decorating his vicious looking aquatic creature are, in actuality, his own blood. He estimates the he lost a cup of it over the course of the project. Although much larger in scale, Belfast, Ireland, sculptor, John Kindness' Bigfish (right) is crafted from ceramic tile featuring newspaper images and texts to create a visual texture.

East River Fish, George Estreich--bloody vicious in more than just appearance.
Fish Pump, 1931, Andre Perugia
Though fish are usually rendered quite sleek and streamlined, colorful and exotic in size, shape, and detail, they can often be seen as quite humorous as well. This aspect of "fishy" art is an irresistible temptation for irreverence among artists and designers alike. Andre Perugia's Fish Pump (left), from 1931, is a prime example. The style never caught on. Rob Chapman's Amazon Fish Poker (below), reminds us that if dogs can learn the game, so can fish. However, fins do make it hard to hold a poker hand.

Amazon Fish Poker, Rob Chapman
Fish with a"peel."
(I couldn't resist that).
Artists have also come to the rescue of those who detest the "fishy" taste of seafood, as see in Rogue Angel's, gingerbread Cookie Fish (bottom). As to the computer generated image at left, I'm not sure which would be worse, a fishy tasting banana, or a banana-flavored fish. But who could resist a "kissy" fish, Chris Keast-Woyde's Florida Tropical Fish (below, right).

Florida Tropical Fish, Chris Keast-Woyde
Rogue Angel's Cookie Fish


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