Arguably the largest faction containing the most experts and critics – politics and cuisine aside are the arts, which include music, dance, fashion, literature, film, painting and of course bonsai horticulture. The experts or critics have a field-day reviewing the work produced passing comments such as, there is no composition, no balance, depth, movement and is unnatural for example. This perspective was applied to the works of American painter Paul Jackson Pollock, (01/28/1912 – 11/08/1956) professionally known as Jackson Pollock, known for his unique style of drip painting.
The pundits, experts or critics did not know what to make of his work and usually their first question was ‘What does it say or mean‘? Pollack replied “The painting has a life of its own and I try to let it come through.” The experts whom were not artists themselves so used to reviewing portraits, landscapes and marine scenes, unable to see the work for what it represented simply dismissed it giving poor reviews. Pollack retorted that “Painting is self-discovery, every good artist paints what he is.” His style and approach to painting made him into the leading force behind the abstract expressionist movement in the art world.
Breaking the rules
Arguably, this same perspective is applied to bonsai and there are those referred to as purists, who argue that we should adhere to the rules; but what are these rules? In short the definition of bonsai literally means ‘Bon’ a pot or shallow container and ‘Sai’ the tree or shrub, which are the only two components in bonsai. It does not include any other items such as rocks or miniature figurines. In addition, the purists perception of the rules also dictate the following. A bonsai composition should have balance, depth, movement and rhythm, emphasis, contrast, proportion, space and unity, that which is depicted in the original catalogue of styles. And if one wishes to remain a purist, he or she should adhere to this principle.
It is often stated in bonsai circles that what we are trying to achieve is to mimic what we see in nature, creating miniature adaptations of full sized trees. But like Pollack’s approach to painting, bonsai has also changed and this is where the rules get broken, because some bonsai styles have little in common with their wild counterparts. They are depicted as bizarre, twisted shapes, some with just a sliver of bark to keep them alive with the cambium bleached, burnt or painted. Such specimens although ‘living’ have a plastic aura about them, which arguably defies reality, yet they are considered attractive often depicting rare natural beauty as shown below.
Nonetheless, the purists or experts engage themselves in heated discussions concerning other designs that are not bonsai in the true sense of the word, that is if we adhere to the rules. For example, the styles ‘root over rock’ Sekijoju and Ishitsuki ‘root clinging to a rock’, a design that has caused much contention. Experts examine the composition and criticise the artists work. The rock is either too big, too small, the wrong shape, texture and colour, it lacks emphasis, is out of balance and has no proportion. Furthermore the composition does not match the pot. But Sekijoju and Ishitsuki are classed as Deshojo and do not appear in the original catalogue of styles. Neither do Ikadabuki, Netsunagari and the much frowned on Tanuki, these are designs that have gradually appeared through time.
A modern perspective
It is fair to say that bonsai design an art form, has changed over the decades and is now a concept in the mind of the individual designer and his/her perception of how it should appear, should be respected regardless of someone else’s viewpoint. In reality, a painter having completed his or her work will make any final adjustments, put it in a frame and consider it finished. But bonsai is completely different, because it is a ‘living’ sculpture requiring care and attention, constantly shaping by pruning or wiring and thus it is never finished. Even bonsai centuries old are not perfect (see the 1000 year old Ficus ginseng that resides at Crespi, Italy) posted in the article ‘New material for bonsai part II’.
Of course one can debate the issue of bonsai design indefinitely for example. Some have argued that the traditional 2D styles of the Japanese are unnatural, because the main emphasis or focal point should be the trunk. Branches that cross the trunk should either be removed or positioned away. Moreover, some practitioners contend that there should not be any scarring or imperfections as this is considered ugly, the tree must be perfect in every way. But this is a contradiction because, the techniques of sharimiki and jin (Scarring) are often incorporated into the tree to add character and are common in Japanese bonsai design.
When we look at trees in their natural state they all have branches radiating in all directions with many going across the trunk. Many trees will have natural scarring and other imperfections including broken branches, which indicate that the tree has been subjected to trauma at some point. The beauty of nature is that it is not only wild and untouched, it is real and if we are to maintain reality, then the following statement from bonsai master John Y. Naka is very appropriate. “Don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree”. The following image depicts a group of Silver birch Betula pendula in their natural state.
Starting at the beginning
A question often asked especially from novice bonsai enthusiasts is ‘I have a young sapling, which I grew from seed and I am not sure of how to shape it.’ In actual fact this problem is not uncommon even for the more experienced, arguably the most important factor in design is to get the best potential out of the tree. With an untouched or virgin sapling you basically have a blank canvas on which to work, but in hindsight it would be prudent to do some research.
This can be achieved in two ways (a) if your plant is native to your region, then a trip to where full sized counterparts are growing is a good way to start. There you can study the trees formed by nature and a photograph or two, is a base on which to work. (b) If the tree is not in your region, then look on the world-wide-web for your species both as a full sized wild tree and as bonsai. In both (a) and (b) the images collected can be saved on computer. Using ‘Photoshop’ or a similar programme you can draw, cut, copy, paste and make alterations until you have a suitable design. Alternatively, bonsai styles showing various designs can be found here in ‘Bonsai Styles Parts I and II’. But the question is, will your bonsai look like a tree or some bizarre representation.
When considering a design there are a few factors to remember, that is if we adhere to the rules and these are:
- Taper – a fat trunk that gets thinner towards the apex.
- Movement – the trunk will either bend to the right or left or will incorporate a combination of both.
- Nebari – partially visible roots that radiate around the base of the trunk.
- Branch placement should alternate on both sides of the tree.
- Ramification – or the fine ‘twiggy’ bits at the end of the branches.
Of course all of this takes time to achieve and depends on the species and their particular growth rate. But before shaping begins, inspect the tree for any side shoots that may be developing as this will determine branch placement to the sides and rear. And where a trunk bend can be placed, because as we are always told a branch never appears on the inside of a bend only on the outside as shown below.
This hand-drawn image a common design in bonsai referred to as Moyogi arguably contains most of the characteristics that may placate the purists and or critics. But does it look natural a true representation as would be found in nature, some would say yes, whilst others would probably disagree. The problem with any art form regardless of its genre is that it is prone to change and evidence of this can literally be found everywhere. It is the individual artists interpretation, we do not have to like it or partake in its culture just accept the fact that it exists. Nonetheless, the experts and or critics will crawl out of the woodwork and start pointing the finger. To conclude this discussion the following anecdote has been included.
The Bonsai exhibition – is it all worth it?
Nothing in this world is perfect no matter what the entity, perfection is something that we strive for, but rarely attained. Nonetheless, designing miniatures trees for shows or public display is another entity, that for my part simply has no appeal. Because the exhibits although attractive in their own right do not look natural, they have the appearance of a carefully shorn groomed poodle. However, my presence at such venues be they aquatic, bovine, equine, domestic and horticulture was one of the requirements of my profession.
Many years ago a commission to produce an article on a bonsai exhibition came into being, which required much consideration as to how it would be presented; revealing, quirky or serious. Arriving early before public admittance gave the opportunity to view the exhibits and the actions of their owners. Some had their specimens draped in black cloth to protect the flowers from the light, so they would be in their prime when viewed. Others were snipping here or there, trimming the moss on the pot to a fine carpet-like appearance akin to that of an 18th hole putting green.
Some were busy polishing the bonsai display stands, others spraying the trunks and leaves to give a fresh morning dew perspective. The whole activity in the display tent seemed rather intense reminiscent of worker bees in a hive, which gave a rather stressful, but comical atmosphere. Because the experts would soon be there to cast judgement and some would be elated, whilst others dejected. Having spent some considerable time documenting the theatrics and obtaining all that was needed, a trip to the beer tent to write the article was the next course of action. With the thoughts “is it really worth all the aggravation” going through my mind.
Swimming in the deep end or paddling in the shallows
Bonsai is not only an art form it is also a science meaning, that the enthusiast does require some horticultural ‘know-how’ in order to care for the health and welfare of a plant. Arguably such research can be considered a voyage of discovery; a learning curve as one gains the knowledge. But like any hobby one can become engrossed to the point where it tends to take precedence superseding other interests and can be expensive. This can be likened to constantly ‘swimming in the deep end’, whereas stepping back and taking control ‘paddling in the shallows’ is less stressful not only on the mind, but also on the wallet. Nonetheless, the degree of intensity to which a bonsai enthusiast will submerge his or herself is an individual choice.
Future articles are now put on hold for a short period, due to an influx of work nevertheless, those whom follow this web site will be kept informed of my return. Until next time BW, N.