Japanese fish, fish art, exhibition

The Sieboldhuis, today a museum about Japan in the inner city of Leiden in the Netherlands, used to be the home of Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a pioneer in European studies of Japanese society and natural history.

Von Siebold sent, in the year 1829 alone, 540 Japanese fish of 255 species, mainly in alcohol bottles, also some as mounted skins, to the natural history museum in Leiden. He also sent pictures of the fish, made by Japanese artist Kawahara Keiga (maybe some were by Keiga’s pupils).

Now, there is an exhibition of those fish and those pictures in the Sieboldhuis.

This is a video about the exhibition.

The Sieboldhuis site writes about the exhibition:

‘Fish: From Shark to Koi’ is a family exhibition. It shows visitors how Siebold collected ‘his’ fish in Japan between 1823 and 1829. The exhibition explains how the collected fish were painted, described, preserved and finally shipped to the Netherlands. Visitors, young and old, will learn how these fish were recognized as new species in the Netherlands and how they were described and illustrated as such in the Fauna Japonica: the fundamental bookwork on the Japanese animal kingdom.

The fish in this exhibition have rarely been shown to the public since the collection was formed. Most of the vivid water colour paintings by Kawahara Keiga are shown to the public for the first time in history. Because of their photo sensitivity, these works will not be included in any future exhibition any time soon. Highlights of this exhibition are the water colour paintings, the two meter long [blue] shark and the large sunfish, which is almost five feet long. In addition, the exhibition includes several aquariums with live fish.

Today, I saw just one (big) aquarium, with young koi, Japanese crucian carp, and goldfish.

Goldfish was the only Japanese fish species mentioned by famous eighteenth century naturalist Linnaeus. So Von Siebold really increased knowledge about fish in Japan. Today, more zoologists in Japan study fish than other animal species. Even the emperor studies fish. Fish are traditionally important in Japan, surrounded by sea on all sides and with many lakes and rivers in the interior.

There were also several films. One was about a new luminous shark species, recently discovered near Japan. Others were about tuna; about catfish (there is a legend that a giant catfish living under the Japanese islands causes earthquakes in Japan); and about koi.

Koi carp are big business in Japan. They may sell from 10,000 to 100,000 US dollars. There are beauty contests for them. Koi are thought of as symbols of peace, as they don’t fight among themselves.

Among the fish, exhibited both themselves and as pictures by Kawahara Keiga, was Ariosoma anagoides, a conger eel species. One could see that the mounted fish had lost their original colours. This is why Von Siebold commissioned Keiga to depict the fish, to preserve their colours.

There was also a sandbar shark. And a live sharksucker. And the anglerfish Lophius setigerus.

British Museum’s Japanese erotic art show only for over 16s: here.

MICHAL BONCZA recommends the British Museum’s exhibition of Shunga erotic art from Japan: here.

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