A Life Among Fishes: the Art of Gyotaku
Reviewed by Peter B. Moyle,
Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, University of California, Davis 95616 firstname.lastname@example.org
Gyotaku, or fish printing, is a familiar art form to fish biologists. Many of our offices have prints, ranging from crude to exquisite, on the walls. Fish printing stations for kids are common on public visitation days to labs, with each kid bringing home a messy souvenir print. We like fish prints because of their realism and because fish are intrinsically beautiful, with diverse shapes and colors. Their simple subject matter makes them so accessible we think “I can do that!” until we actually try creating a print that adequately shows something other than a dead fish. That is when we realize that gyotaku is in fact a genuine art form. The best prints come from skilled artists whose work reflects the beauty and mystique of living fish. Such prints are aesthetically pleasing and are more of an abstraction of a fish than a copy. Artists who can make such prints are rare.
One of the masters of fishing printing in North America is Christopher Dewees, whose work represents the fusion of a long career working with marine fishes and a long career as a fish printer. He knows his fish and this knowledge is reflected in the prints, which can seem alive. Fortunately, Dewees loves sharing his knowledge of fish and fish printing, a product of his work as a Sea Grant extension specialist. This book therefore is more than just a collection of his prints. It is also a how-to-do-it guide, a history of the art form, an autobiography, and a wonderful collection of anecdotes from Dewees’ international travel as a fisheries biologist, fish printer, and angler. A word of warning: I am not an unbiased reviewer: I have been his colleague at UC Davis since 1972.
The hundred or so prints in the book are, of course, its centerpiece. There are gyotaku from all over the world, printed with both the direct and indirect methods. Dewees has the courage so show both his early and late works, which show his growth as an artist. Aesthetically, his best works, from my perspective, are recent gyotaku of such fish as Flyingfish, Emerald Parrotfish, Atlantic Spadefish, Mangrove Snapper, and Dorado, although the prints of octopus, shrimp, and crabs are also interesting and colorful abstractions. Most of the fish that Dewees prints are fresh, which enables him to catch their subtle colors, but also allows him to eat the subject once he has finished printing it. One of his stories is about a special dinner being delayed because he had not finished printing the main course.
Dewees’ prints reflect his fishy sense of humor (e.g. a composition of Lingcod called “Temple of the Cods”) and his willingness to experiment, such as creating a print of a “fossil” fish using fish bones and a sturgeon tail. It might be worth a trip to Alaska to see his print of a 265 pound Halibut, a good example of why gyotaku was invented, to record big catches of fish. But he also likes small fish and I was intrigued by the prints of deepsea fishes obtained from the stomachs of tuna.
While the prints are the centerpiece of the book, the text links them together with entertaining anecdotes and photos. Anecdotes include Dewees observing, as a child, whale carcasses being towed to a processing station in San Francisco and of not seeing whales while fishing off shore. 50 years later, the whales are present in abundance: an unusually positive story these days. The book ends first with over 50 prints from California and New Zealand and then winds down with “other uses of Gyotaku” including t-shirts, scarfs, lampshades and wine labels. I am sure more people have seen fish prints on t-shirts than they have in art galleries and I assume that any exposure to this marvelous art form is good.
So buy this book and enjoy it, even if you are not strangely attracted to fish. You will love the art and enjoy the text.