The Art of Koi

Posted by Shengfei Zhu & Pia Fennell on August 31, 2013

Koi can be seen everywhere these days. From tattoo art and fashion to interior design, these fish call to mind the serenity of the Far East and simple beauty of nature. Koi are ornamental varieties of domesticated carp that are kept in outdoor ponds or water gardens and were originally developed in Ancient Japan for their decorative qualities. Major varieties are distinguished by color, pattern, and size. They are a very common theme for Chinese traditional art, and also carry significant artistic meanings in Asian cultures.

Koi in Chinese Culture and Art

In Chinese culture, koi have been seen as auspicious for many centuries. When the wife of Confucius, the well-known Chinese philosopher, bore a boy, one of their friends gave Confucius some koi fish, which Confucius regarded as a symbol of good luck. So, he named his son "Li" (鲤: Chinese pronunciation for koi fish). According to Chinese legend, koi fish swim freely in the sea even in stormy conditions, so the people of ancient China thought koi might change into dragons and were thought to be as powerful. Because of this, koi are closely related to the Dragon Gateway, which is said to be more than ten thousand meters high. If a koi fish manages to jump over the gate, it will turn into a dragon. Since dragons were thought of as the pinnacle of wisdom, power and grace in Ancient China, this would be an enormous accomplishment for a fish!

In olden times, to call someone a koi fish indicated that he or she passed the challenging imperial exams. Nowadays, it refers to someone who has made a rapid advance in his or her career. This idiom also indicates that as long as one works really hard, he or she will succeed at last, like the small fish tuning into a grand dragon.

Because of their association with prosperity and red color (red being a lucky color in China), people began to keep koi in tanks and pools in their homes to attract luck and professional or academic advancement. According to records, Chinese royal families started to raise koi during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Since then, they have always been present in royal court and can be seen in such art forms as decorative painting, silk embroidery and ceramic sculpture.

Chinese Traditional Painting

Chinese traditional painting is often known as Chinese ink and wash painting (水墨画) because of the materials and technique used. Traditionally, only black and white were used, but over time artists added red, orange, green and other colors. Because of the simplicity of their form and elegance on paper, koi became a popular subject for this style of painting. There are seven essential steps to painting a koi in the ink-and-wash style. First, the body is painted, then the tail is added. The third step is to paint the head, the mouth and the eyes. The next step is to paint the scales on the body of the fish. The fifth step is to add the fins, followed by the painting of the spine and other details of the koi.

The picture above is a masterpiece painted by Wu Qingxia, a famous artist born in 1910. She was trained by her father, is is especially well known for the delicate way she depicts koi and seems to inject life and movement into two-dimensional representations of them. This painting was done in Shanghai during the summer of 1982. The line of Chinese calligraphy on the painting literally means, "The koi jump over the Dragon Gateway, which is ten thousand ren [an ancient unit of measurement equaling 1.8 meters] high". This sort of painting, because of its subject and message, would be a common sight in many Chinese homes.

This painting shows the same event, but the gateway is actually present in the composition rather than being alluded to. The struggle of the fish is obvious in the shape of their bodies as well.

Chinese Silk Embroidery

Chinese silk embroiderers have always favored koi fish as a theme for their work because their physical attributes are an excellent means of showcasing delicate stitch technique and richly colored silk thread. Aside from attempts to leap over the Dragon Gateway, koi will often be seen swimming in a circle, a shape that represents fullness and completion. The richness and variety of koi colors is highlighted in silk embroidery more than painting, for the shimmer of silk thread mimics the effect of fish scales as they slice through water.

In embroidery pieces, the number of koi is meaningful as well, as numbers have always carried great importance in Chinese culture. Nine, twelve and eighteen are considered to be the most auspicious numbers, so groups of koi will be shown in groups of that size. Otherwise, the numbers of koi are usually even because in Chinese culture, good things are believed to come in pairs.

Chinese Porcelain

China is famous for its porcelain products, both in traditional styles and their modern interpretations. Generally speaking, the products can be divided into two categories: the practical and the decorative. Plates, teapots, cups, bowls, and the like will often be decorated with koi to add visual interest to items that are used every day and found in almost every home. Items that are used for a special function, like religious ceremonies, will also depict koi along with other symbols of harmony, like lotus flowers.

Porcelain items can also serve no purpose at all aside from enhancing an interior space, so it is not uncommon to see sculptures of koi that serve only an aesthetic function.

Koi in Japanese Culture and Art

The cultivation of koi for decorative use originated in Japan, so it is in the Japanese artistic tradition that we see the most variety in koi depictions. In the Japanese language, the word "koi" is a homophone for another word that means "affection" or "love"; therefore the fish itself has come to represent these concepts. It is regarded as the "divine fish", associated with heavenly matters and spreading happiness and prosperity wherever it swims. Because of their rich and varied coloration, koi are known as "living jewels" and are used to enhance a variety of household, religious and purely artistic ornaments.

Koi flags

 In Japanese mythology, koi are often associated with children, who are much celebrated and beloved. As a result, parents and grandparents hang colorful flags that resemble koi outside their homes to attract blessions for the younger generation. This tradition is traditionally associated with Boy’s Day (Tango no Sekku) a Japanese holiday venerating the place of children in society . Koi are thought of as symbols for male virility and strength, so it is natural that they serve as a representation for the qualities most sought in boys. It is said that if a koi is caught, it will lie still beneath the knife, facing its death bravely like a brave Samurai facing a sword. Parents hope their sons will face their destinies with equal stoicism.

Japanese Paintings

Because of all of the qualities koi represent in Japanese culture, they are as common a subject for painting as they are in China. However, the hallmark features of historical painting styles in these two traditions vary greatly, and the Japanese manner of depicting a koi pays more attention to the details of the fish’s body. Whiskers, delicate scales and undulating fins are the focus, and usually only one or two fish will be the central subject of a composition because there is less emphasis on numerology and superstition.

Japanese Irezumi

Because of the many admirable qualities associated with these gorgeous fish, koi swimming in flowing water have become popular tattoo subjects as people draw reference from these amazing fish into their own lives. The koi becomes a recurring symbol in Irezumi, the Japanese art of traditional tattooing. People have used this ancient art of body marking to signify devotion to a certain cause or faith system, and it is believed to set people apart from the masses by expressing something of their uniqueness to the outside world. Today, tattoos of koi are not limited to Japan, but can be seen all over the world.

Koi in Western Culture and Art

In recent decades, Western artists and designers have been looking to the East for inspiration and have appropriated symbols and themes to use in new contexts, which breaths a new life into ancient icons. Koi is one of the most commonly seen traditionally "Eastern" symbols that has bridged the divide and is now as visually present in the West as anywhere else.

Western Koi Painting

These paintings were done by British Surrey-based artist Mark London. It is easy to see how his treatment of koi deferrers greatly from the Asian styles we have looked at. Color is one of the areas of divergence, since London is not restricted to the colors koi occur in natural settings, and incorporates a more imaginative pallet. When asked about his choices, London says he "could use vibrant colors to represent the fish as well as the patterns they create, their concealment below the water's surface and pond weed, and the hidden depths they reveal." He has tried to convey these qualities in his paintings, and has succeeded in developing a stylized approach to increase visual interest. These paintings are definitely beautiful to look at and their reinterpretation of a time-honored subject makes them all the more compelling.

Wall Sculpture

Sculpture is another medium where we can see the Western treatment of an Eastern symbol. Since sculptures have a three-dimensional effect, as if one is looking at a Koi pond only on a wall and, shadow and light play as much of a role as form and color.

Koi Leaping into the Future

Because of their unique attributes and the characteristics associated with them, koi are a timeless part of most Asian artistic traditions. They represent all of the qualities people favor, both in ancient times and today, and because of that will endure in the collective symbols of what has endeared Asian art to the rest of the world. Because of the cross-cultural shifts and trends in the art world, Western reinterpretations provide a new context for regarding a well-known subject. Whether in a natural context, swimming peacefully in a decorative urn or outdoor pond, or decorating the walls of a home or office, koi art complements traditional and modern settings and bridges the gap between old and new, East and West.

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