Below the surface: nature as it comes

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Our friend here takes with consummate grace the homage due him. Diminutive fish slip excitedly after him, or turn and gape round-eyed. Even the turtle is dwarfed by his robust importance and seems to pay court (awkwardly treading thin water) to this impressive member of the family Cyprinidae.

''The Carp,'' as described by seventeenth-century writer/angler Isaak Walton, ''is the Queen of Rivers: a stately, a good, and a very subtle fish, that was not at first bred, nor hath long been in England, but is now naturalized.'' The eighteenth-century Japanese painter Rosetsu's carp is somewhat nearer home: this kind of freshwater fish (whose family includes such appealingly named fish as minnows, shiners and tenches, daces, chubs, breams and barbels) originally came to Europe and America from eastern Asia. It is a cousin of the common or garden (usually garden) goldfish, native of China and Japan, also a favourite subject of traditional art in these countries.

In the art of the West it is difficult to find any works, let alone good and stately ones, which display an affection for, or observation of, fish alive and well and living in streams and rivers and lakes. There is an abundance of marvellous landscape paintings, of course, often appropriately in watercolour, of their habitat: water is a very common subject in European art. Whether in the form of lakes, still and grand among hills, or streams rushing over rocks, or the surging sea itself, there is an inevitable similarity between the appearance and fluidity of water and the modes and methods of painting. So why is it that Western artists have shown so little interest in the teeming life below its surface?

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In language, particularly poetry, Western sensibilities have come closer to the beauty (and humour) of fish in their element, which are so natural a part of Chinese and Japanese painting. Significantly, perhaps, it is swift glimpses that stick in the mind: Hopkins' inclusion, for instance, among his ''dappled things'' of ''rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim,'' or among John Clare's signs that ''May is come: When fishes leap in silver stream. . . .'' In prose the same poet wrote: ''I saw a sizable gudgeon twinkle round the glossy pebbles'': but angling, as well as beauty, is in his thoughts, and it seems on the whole difficult for the West to appreciate fish unless for sport or the table. How many painters have depicted fish laid out, like John the Baptist's head, pitiably on a charger, or as part of a ''nature morte'': and how few seem to have considered them worthy of notice, glistening with vitality or jumping for delight in a pond, creatures of grace and liberty, uncaught.

The traditional Japanese artist, on the other hand, could honour the glance and slide of living fish, the great variousness of the swimming creation, because he had a different sense of the momentary. European painting expresses movement, of course, and tries to capture the evanescent, but it monumentalizes even the most intangible and temporary aspects of things. It seems unable to disregard the fact that painting brings stillness to that which moves. Motion in Japanese painting is expressed through movement; the ungraspable remains ungraspable. In European art, even if figures are in motion, the space they move in seems immobile; this is finalized, at its outer edges, as a frame round a picture. In Japanese art, the glimpsed moment is often displayed as such, in a scroll that is rolled and unrolled to reveal - as in this particular instance - a continuous development of ''Birds, Plants and Fish,'' incessantly alive. What could come closer, in terms of format, to the uninterrupted course of nature, to the ubiquitous vivacity of sparrows and herons and monkeys and frogs and fish?

The West had to invent film to achieve a visual art form equivalent to the Oriental scroll, capable of imitating the small but widespread transitions of nature's spacious multiplicity. A Japanese artist like Rosetsu had, as background to his own originality and delight - which in his case was particularly affectionate and witty toward animals - a tradition and training (he was a pupil of Maruyama Okyo) which took for granted the procession of beautifully arranged images across an extended horizontal space. This art could as easily give scope to birds in flight as it could to tigers leaping, or puppies playing among bamboos, or fish swimming. Rosetsu's inspiration was an extraordinary sympathy for, almost an identification with, creatures great and small, dry and wet. He certainly seems to know what it feels like to be a fish.

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