Bonsai Study Group Forum

General Category => General Bonsai Discussion => Topic started by: Hotaction on September 27, 2010, 12:58 PM

Title: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Hotaction on September 27, 2010, 12:58 PM
Lots of controversy flying around the internet about this lately.  I didn't want to muddy up any other threads, so I started this one. 

For the record, I could care less about doing this whole thing the japanese way.  If I were to try painting, would it be necessary for me to recreate a Rembrandt first, in order to understand painting. Bonsai just happens to be the only word we have to describe what we do. 

So, I will no longer practice the art of bonsai, as it has no place for those who don't wish they were born in Japan.  Anyone who wishes to join my club for the raising of trees maintained in containers while being pruned to remain smaller than their natural form is welcome to do so. 

Dave
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: MatsuBonsai on September 27, 2010, 01:10 PM
Thanks for invite, Dave, but I think I'll continue to practice the Japanese art of bonsai.  ;)
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Hotaction on September 27, 2010, 01:12 PM
Sorry, anyone BUT John ;)
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: T-Town Bonsai on September 27, 2010, 01:27 PM
Thanks for invite, Dave, but I think I'll continue to practice the Japanese art of bonsai.  ;)

As will I.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: johng on September 27, 2010, 01:39 PM
Hey Dave, 

There will probably always be room for both with me.  I do love the art as the Japanese practice it, but I also love, perhaps even more, being able to apply what I have learned to my own experience and environment.  To create miniature trees and landscapes that are inspired by my experiences is personally very rewarding and challenging.  Yet, I have, and hope to always have trees that fulfill both realms.

John 

Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on September 27, 2010, 03:25 PM
Dave,
This "stuff" has been kicking around for years, on the internet and before the internet. I think Boon said it best, there are really only two kinds of bonsai: good bonsai and bad bonsai. Theclassic example I love is when folks throw up pictures of Walter Pall's spectacular Rocky Mountain Juniper, and explain how it is better than Japanese trees because it is more Naturalistic. I have noticed that as the tree matures in it's bonsai life, the foliage gets denser and the sillohoutte more refined, starts looking a little Japanese. As one rather famous/infamous European BonsaiProfessional has put it, as the bonsai in the west mature they will look more andmore like the Japanese trees. We will have to see. I have been lucky to see many spectacular Bonsai in Japan andin the West (US and Europe), I think Boon has it right- theyare all just really, really, good bonsai.  John
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: MatsuBonsai on September 27, 2010, 03:40 PM
Dave,
This "stuff" has been kicking around for years, on the internet and before the internet. I think Boon said it best, there are really only two kinds of bonsai: good bonsai and bad bonsai. Theclassic example I love is when folks throw up pictures of Walter Pall's spectacular Rocky Mountain Juniper, and explain how it is better than Japanese trees because it is more Naturalistic. I have noticed that as the tree matures in it's bonsai life, the foliage gets denser and the sillohoutte more refined, starts looking a little Japanese. As one rather famous/infamous European BonsaiProfessional has put it, as the bonsai in the west mature they will look more andmore like the Japanese trees. We will have to see. I have been lucky to see many spectacular Bonsai in Japan andin the West (US and Europe), I think Boon has it right- theyare all just really, really, good bonsai.  John


John,

Very well said.  And, perhaps a much less controversial way to put it.  Good thoughts.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: boon on September 28, 2010, 03:05 AM
This is interesting.  i am neither born in the US nor Japan.  i have studied bonsai in Japan.  My teacher taught me to study nature and bring the structure and feeling of the same specie to create your tree.  Japanese tree use nature as their basic practice.
you will be better artist if you pic and study good trees.  there are lots of bad trees in the forest.  if you pick the bad one to be your model.  can you imagine what the final product will be? 
here are the model that i pick.  i use the same principal to teach also

first pic is the pine tree in the sierra
second is the sierra juniper
third is a group of sierra juniper
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: boon on September 28, 2010, 03:07 AM
here is the branch pattern on sierra juniper

side view
and view from under neath.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: boon on September 28, 2010, 03:10 AM
i hope these picture open up you eye and see the relationship between good bonsai and nature.

is your bonsai looks like the old tree in nature when you use the word 'naturalistic'?
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Hotaction on September 28, 2010, 11:04 AM
Boon, thanks for the great images and insights.  Also, thanks to everyone for your thoughts.  I realize I wasn't too clear in my opening statement, so let me add this.  I wasn't arguing about the trees at all, no doubt the Japanese develop some amazing ones, and achieve the results through great and consistent technique.  Great trees, are great trees and the best ones do resemble the majestic natural forms. 
 
My comments were more aimed at the "Why" of practicing bonsai.  Some feel that it must be approached from that Japanese Ideology.  I disagree, do it however you want, there is no right or wrong.  Years and Years of their culture is no doubt infused into the way they approach bonsai, that isn't to say it is the only way. 

Some people give me the impression that if you have ever littered, you don't care about nature, therefore you could never be a serious bonsaiist.  Bullocks I say.  I like the way they look, I think it is cool, that is why I grow small trees.  I have fun doing it.  I would love to go to Japan, and see the nurseries and shows, but I feel no need to duplicate the feel of that in my back yard.

Dave
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: MatsuBonsai on September 28, 2010, 11:14 AM
I was going to try to work up some thoughtful post, but I'm tired.  :)  I would like to reply with something like, I don't really think of it as "Japanese bonsai", much like i don't think of it as "Japanese automobile".  I think "good tree" and "good car".  It's an art the Japanese have been practicing for a long time.  Much can be learned from studying traditional bonsai.  When others surpass, I will look to learn all I can from them, too.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: bwaynef on September 28, 2010, 11:17 AM
I disagree, do it however you want, there is no right or wrong.

Not to derail the thread too much, but I take exception to this.  There may be multiple right ways (and possible ways that are "righter" than others) but there are wrong ways.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Hotaction on September 28, 2010, 11:22 AM
I disagree, do it however you want, there is no right or wrong.

Not to derail the thread too much, but I take exception to this.  There may be multiple right ways (and possible ways that are "righter" than others) but there are wrong ways.

Again, I wasn't clear.  When I said right and wrong, I was refering to the reasons of why we do it.  I agree with you that the technique utilized can certainly fall short.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: MatsuBonsai on September 28, 2010, 11:23 AM
Not to derail the thread too much, but I take exception to this.  There may be multiple right ways (and possible ways that are "righter" than others) but there are wrong ways.

And I take exception with this.  Who's to say what's right and wrong?  If your goal is to create ugly trees.... nevermind.  Carry on.  :)
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Hotaction on September 28, 2010, 11:40 AM
Here is a comparison I just thought of.  Imagine 3 little puppies bought by three different owners.  This first one is brought home by a nice family to be a loving member of the family.  The second is destined to become one of the best hunting dogs on the planet.  the third little pup finds his way into the life of a drug-sniffing cop dog.  All three are dogs, and all are beautiful creatures, but the reason why they ended up that way can be very different. 

By the way, the 4th one is a cat ??? now that just doesn't make sense no matter how you look at it.

Dave
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on September 28, 2010, 03:09 PM
Dave,
Now I get where you are coming from, I think the issue of technique does get confused with philosophy and heritage issues.

I like the more traditional approach, using simple more "clean" pots and styling. Probably just a reflection of what I have learned from my teacher- and one that I find myself continuing to appreciate as I move forward.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: bwaynef on September 28, 2010, 03:13 PM
Here is a comparison I just thought of.  ... All three are dogs, and all are beautiful creatures, but the reason why they ended up that way can be very different. 

Being a dog person, I kept getting caught up in the whats of your comparison, rather than the whys.  Upon re-reading, I have to admit, that's a pretty apt comparison ...coming from someone who doesn't like to wear pants.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: joe cervantes on September 28, 2010, 07:50 PM
very cool thread. Heres one for you. Karate and Kung Fu pre Bruce Lee, post Bruce Lee.  Japanese , Chinese. East, West! Bonsai is Bonsai no matter who you are. You just make it your own and you keep growing as you do it. Just do it. Hope that made sense.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: mcpesq817 on September 29, 2010, 10:51 AM
This is interesting.  i am neither born in the US nor Japan.  i have studied bonsai in Japan.  My teacher taught me to study nature and bring the structure and feeling of the same specie to create your tree.  Japanese tree use nature as their basic practice.
you will be better artist if you pic and study good trees.  there are lots of bad trees in the forest.  if you pick the bad one to be your model.  can you imagine what the final product will be? 
here are the model that i pick.  i use the same principal to teach also

first pic is the pine tree in the sierra
second is the sierra juniper
third is a group of sierra juniper

Hi Boon - thanks for sharing these pictures and the ones in your next post.  Those pictures speak a thousand words.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Mike Pollock on September 29, 2010, 10:55 AM
I agree with what John Kirby said (that Boon said) that there are only good bonsai or bad bonsai. I believe it also extends to why and how people do bonsai. The best trees from all traditions do have a habit of looking alike. And the best practitioners of bonsai probably have a lot of techniques and motivations in common too.

I didn't see a famous American bonsai curmudgeon getting into any fights at Ginko. :) He may not have liked all of the trees, but he seemed to get along with the people...

Most of the disagreements seem to me to come from people who talk bonsai a lot and do bonsai somewhat less.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: bwaynef on September 29, 2010, 11:00 AM
Most of the disagreements seem to me to come from people who talk bonsai a lot and do bonsai somewhat less.

OUCH!  How do you really feel Mike?   ;D

With rare exception, your statement seems to be true though.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Mike Pollock on September 29, 2010, 11:06 AM
LOL.  I'm really not speaking about anyone in particular, it just seems to be that the busiest and best bonsaiists don't seem to be very active speaking OR THINKING about these issues.  They spend their time working on and teaching about trees.

I'd love to do a presentation someday showing trees and having people guess their origin and "styling theory." If we could find great trees that people had never seen before (almost impossible theses days), I bet it would be hard to tell most great European trees from great Japanese trees, etc.  I know I've seen "Naturalistic" trees in Kokufu books. And of course we see many Japanese-feeling trees from Western artists.

The whole argument seems much ado about nothing.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: bwaynef on September 29, 2010, 11:10 AM
Interesting that another Shakespeareism came to my mind:

"A rose by any other name..."

Classify them how you want, they're still good or bad.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Walter_Pall on September 29, 2010, 11:51 AM

Iit is futile to classify food. There is only good or bad food.
It is futile to classify music. There is only good or bad music.
It is futile to classify paintings. There are only good or bad paintings.

Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on September 29, 2010, 02:43 PM
Walter, glad you chipped in. There are very good clasification schemes (that sometimes work) for music, painting and food. I have yet to see a well defined classificarion scheme that is generally acscepted in bonsai.

I was playing an old album from "The Band" last weekend, my wife said that is an interesting country group, who are they. i said "The Band, you know, the guys who played back up for Bob Dylan in the 60's". Sometimes even well acceptee standards have some exceptions.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on September 30, 2010, 02:48 AM
Some feel that it must be approached from that Japanese Ideology.  I disagree, do it however you want, there is no right or wrong.

I think that you're very entitled to disagree as most of the so-called  « Japanese Ideology » debated in the west is more the result of some westerners' imagination than truly Japanese.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Hotaction on September 30, 2010, 12:57 PM
Some feel that it must be approached from that Japanese Ideology.  I disagree, do it however you want, there is no right or wrong.

I think that you're very entitled to disagree as most of the so-called  « Japanese Ideology » debated in the west is more the result of some westerners' imagination than truly Japanese.

Alain, I think you might have just hit the nail on the head. 
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: boon on October 01, 2010, 01:48 AM
Bonsai is bonsai, a Japanese traditional art. 

All on this forum is interested in this art form.

Your new "club" is probably not going to be bonsai.

I applaud your effort and honesty, but please respect this site-"Bonsai Study Group Simply Bonsai".
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: bonsaikc on October 01, 2010, 12:47 PM
Bonsai is bonsai, a Japanese traditional art. 

All on this forum is interested in this art form.

Your new "club" is probably not going to be bonsai.

I applaud your effort and honesty, but please respect this site-"Bonsai Study Group Simply Bonsai".


Boon,
That's as simple as it gets. While there is room for differences in terminology, the art we discuss and practice here is Bonsai.

Chris
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: tanlu on October 05, 2010, 09:06 PM
(I'm still learning how to use all these gadgets when posting^^)

"I think that you're very entitled to disagree as most of the so-called  « Japanese Ideology » debated in the west is more the result of some westerners' imagination than truly Japanese."

Alain, I couldn't agree more.

Although I'm new to the art of bonsai and have much to learn, I am an artist, as well as an East Asian Studies major.

I don't think it's fair to consider, or even label, bonsai as a "Japanese art form". Rather, it's an "East Asian art form".

The word "bonsai", for one thing, is derived from Chinese Characters, and the art form originated in China over a millennium before the Japanese knew of it, and was practiced for centuries in Korea before it even arrived in Japan. The Japanese, learned the art (along with other refined art forms: tea, architecture, ceramics, martial arts, etc.) from the Chinese court and from Korean Buddhist monks.

Japanese social elites and Buddhist monks learned bonsai and refined it over centuries, giving it a "Japanese feel". Just as the Japanese have done in modern times with video games, cars, fashion, and even governance from the West. Bonsai has since continued to be widely practiced in China and Korea, where artists have incorporated their own unique cultural/philosophical ideals, as Japanese, Europeans, Americans, and others incorporated theirs.

I'm sure many of you are aware of this, but I just need to put in my two cents.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on October 06, 2010, 10:21 AM
Sorry Tanlu, I'll stick with Boon.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 06, 2010, 03:52 PM
"I don't think it's fair to consider, or even label, bonsai as a "Japanese art form". Rather, it's an "East Asian art form". "

Not to split hairs, but Bonsai IS a Japanese artform, at least when you spell it that way. It is the most recognizeable and iconic of the many Asian forms of tree art. Bonsai brings with it a connotation of "Japanese-ness" --wabi sabi esthetics and minimalism.

Pentsai, penjing and Korean forms all have their own set of esthetics that reflect the cultures they were developed in. The same goes for Western efforts, only we're not as far along. We in the west are doing what the Japanese did a few centuries ago when the art came to their shores. We're adapting it to our culture, using another as a model.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on October 06, 2010, 06:08 PM
Thank Goodness for annealed copper wire, no more weights on strings........
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 07, 2010, 03:24 AM

I don't think it's fair to consider, or even label, bonsai as a "Japanese art form". Rather, it's an "East Asian art form".

Yes, that's completely true. But if we  stop considering the history of bonsai, we can try to give it a functional definition. To me, it  would be " the art of representing big trees in a small format". It is technically connected with bonkei that is you can go from one to the other with only smooth changes. On the psychological side, it think it is very close to model building.

One more point. I think that the one of the main differences between the Chinese type bonsai that the Japanese elite practiced for hundreds of years and contemporary Japanese bonsai is its lack of mythological content : bonsai trees must evoke real trees without references to Chinese cultural background (I think the same happened for Japanese gardens : they took their roots in Chinese culture, with a lot of symbolism that went away in modern time).
I think also that wabi/sabi Japan-ness is overemphasized. First, I feel it more as being an elite's taste rather than a truly traditional or popular Japanese taste, and then, while not being formalized, it has been here in in western culture for a long time under the form of  antics.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 07, 2010, 02:01 PM
"contemporary Japanese bonsai is its lack of mythological content :"

I don't think this is true. Japanese bonsai is founded in mythological symbolism and it remains. It is just not as obvious or literal as the symbolism in Chinese or other cultures.

Wabi Sabi is not an elitist approach. It is a way of thinking and feeling the symbolism in bonsai. The symbolism of a rugged old plum bonsai that blossoms is heavy with symbolism--New shoots emerging from old wood, old wood blossoming anew, etc. represent perseverance, renewal, purity of spirit.

The association plum has with pine and bamboo is also part of the symbolism.
http://www.ackland.org/art/exhibitions/japanart/index.html (http://www.ackland.org/art/exhibitions/japanart/index.html)

The symbolism in Japanese bonsai is left unspoken and implied, whereas it is overt and literal in Penjing. Nothing wrong with either approach.

I'd also venture bonsai is tremendously more than "making large trees in a small format." Bonsai is produced by man. It is a human interpretation of nature, not a Xerox copy of nature. That interpretation implies the hand of the bonsaiist is as important to the final image as the leaves and branches.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: tanlu on October 08, 2010, 12:07 PM
I'm all for cultural admiration and it's relationship with aesthetics in bonsai. In fact, I love what the Japanese have done with the art form, along with many other art forms that originated, and still practiced, on the Asian continent.

China is very old and COMPLEX, so there's numerous philosophies and aesthetic principles that influence Chinese art forms. The term "wabi-sabi" means the beauty of impermanence/imperfection. It derives from Chinese Buddhism (Japanese: Zen/Chinese: Chan). Ironic since much of Japanese bonsai seems to be aspire for artistic perfection.

Japan's historic isolation allowed them to SELECT what they admired (and what worked for them) from the more advanced civilizations on the Asian continent many centuries ago. The simplicity of Japanese indigenous beliefs/aesthetics was compatible with the "art of simplicity" that derived from Zen Buddhism.

The Japanese term "wabi-sabi" is applied just as equally in the work of many Chinese and Korean artists-- contemporary and traditional painting, ceramics, and bonsai/benjing -- as it has defined much of Japanese contemporary and traditional art.

What I appreciate the most about the Japanese is their SUPERB preservation of invaluable East Asian art forms, such as bonsai, that have been somewhat degraded, or even lost, on the chaotic Asian continent.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 08, 2010, 02:01 PM
Oops, posted inadvertently. Here's the rest:

term "wabi-sabi" means the beauty of impermanence/imperfection. "

Not to be mystical about the whole thing, but wabi-sabi is beyond a simple definition. It, like the western use of "soul" to describe things, is on a spiritual plain. "It's got soul" means a whole lot more than rhythm or beat. It means something deeper, a feeling that is not quite describable. That internal meaning, instead of the more overt literal images in penjing is what drew me to bonsai.

Japanese art strives for perfection backhandedly. The perfection is in the flaws. This is of special use in making bonsai. Trees are not perfect (despite the perfect crowns on some high priced pine bonsai). It is their imperfections that Japanese (and other good bonsaiists) strive to emphasize.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 08, 2010, 03:11 PM
"contemporary Japanese bonsai is its lack of mythological content :"

I don't think this is true. Japanese bonsai is founded in mythological symbolism and it remains. It is just not as obvious or literal as the symbolism in Chinese or other cultures.

OK. Let rephrase it in a slightly different way :" what distinguish modern Japanese bonsai is the very little part that symbolism plays in it. That is a big difference with some other traditional Japanese arts that can't be taken apart from this classical (Chinese) symbolism. When I was living in Japan I was friend with a guy whose father was a well know artist in the kimono craftmanship, (which, in Kyoto, is not a little reference). Though a craftman, he was a graduate in Chinese classical studies in one of the two best university of Japan. Once I was invited at their place, I asked the father whether he was upset to see his son not following the same path. His answer was very clear : my son doesn't know anything about all the mostly Chinese symbolism that resides in a piece of kimono, and thus couldn't, even if he wanted to, do the same work. And then, he took a kimono he had already brought in, and started to explain me what was the meaning of some of the elements. Can you imagine such a scene for a bonsai nursery owner ? I guess not. I can even propose an hypothesis for the birth of Japanese modern bonsai : it started when the increase in the Japanese living  standard allowed enough people without the formal education in Chinese classics to buy trees...

Quote
Wabi Sabi is not an elitist approach. It is a way of thinking and feeling the symbolism in bonsai.
To write it is not to prove it.  To me, things are the way people actually practice them. Just go to contemporary Japan, where is wabi sabi ?  Talk to people about their aesthetics tastes and try to find someone spontaneously evoking Wabi/sabi... Most people of course know it, but it is not a living tradition for most (maybe not unlike painting in the west : everybody knows it does exist but only few practice or take the time to go to exhibitions).

Quote
in The symbolism of a rugged old plum bonsai that blossoms is heavy with symbolism--New shoots emerging from old wood, old wood blossoming anew, etc. represent perseverance, renewal, purity of spirit.


The association plum has with pine and bamboo is also part of the symbolism.
http://www.ackland.org/art/exhibitions/japanart/index.html (http://www.ackland.org/art/exhibitions/japanart/index.html)

Yes, but  this symbolism does or rather did, exist for other Japanese arts in the past doesn't mean that it also true for Japanese modern bonsai.
Quote
The symbolism in Japanese bonsai is left unspoken and implied, whereas it is overt and literal in Penjing. Nothing wrong with either approach.
That seems very mistaken to me. Symbolism is not apparent in Penjing, that is, people who don't know Penjing or classical Chinese culture won't find the symbolism but people who know both will. As you pretend to know that there is symbolism in Japanese bonsai,  can you explain me the symbolism you know it exists in the maple whose picture is included next ?
(http://alainbe.free.fr/fujikawaen_gal/800x600/IMG_0286.jpg)
Quote
I'd also venture bonsai is tremendously more than "making large trees in a small format." Bonsai is produced by man. It is a human interpretation of nature, not a Xerox copy of nature. That interpretation implies the hand of the bonsaiist is as important to the final image as the leaves and branches.
In your sentence, every instance of "bonsai" can be remplaced by "model building" without loosing its sense which is an good indicationto me that the difference between bonsai and model building lies elsewere.

Quote
Not to be mystical about the whole thing, but wabi-sabi is beyond a simple definition[...]It means something deeper, a feeling that is not quite describable. 
Let me point  out that you are asserting it without knowing Japanese, that is,  the idea you build is from an indirect? source. Wikipedia Japanese page (http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%82%8F%E3%81%B3%E3%83%BB%E3%81%95%E3%81%B3)  doesn't say so.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 08, 2010, 03:22 PM
Wow alain,

didn't think my post would upset you so much.

The things I posted, I'ved drawn from my life, not Wikipedia. I've drawn my own conclusions about bonsai and what it means to me. As for not seeing wabi sabi in every day life in Japan, well, so much of life these days is not very soulful, but it's there if you look.

And I would bet you could say exactly the same things about symbolism surviing in today's China...
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 08, 2010, 03:30 PM
"That seems very mistaken to me. Symbolism is not apparent in Penjing, that is, people who don't know Penjing or classical Chinese culture won't find the symbolism but people who know both will. As you pretend to know that there is symbolism in Japanese bonsai,  can you explain me the symbolism you know it exists in the maple whose picture is included next."

"In your sentence, every instance of "bonsai" can be remplaced by "model building" without loosing its sense which is an good indicationto me that the difference between bonsai and model building lies elsewere.

Let me point  out that you are asserting it without knowing Japanese, that is,  the idea you build is from an indirect? source. Wikipedia Japanese page  doesn't say so

Again, wow. I don't know where to begin with this other than who peed in your cornflakes?
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on October 08, 2010, 06:47 PM
To carry this thread to its logical conclusion, small trees in pots is a derivative of our African heritage. Asall human beings came out of the cradle of humanity, aka Africa. Then it makes sense that we can trace elements of the art form back to man's struggles to leave the northern savanahs of Africa. If some religious fables make you uncomfrotable with this, then tough.

Let's get back to the discussion of modern bonsai, if you want to talk about penjingor bonkei or tiddly winks, that is fine, just annotate the threadtitle so I can skip it.

Cheers,
John
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 09, 2010, 03:01 AM
Quote
Upset

Why becoming personal ? I  just try to explain that things you assert as being true are not (e.g. "Japanese bonsai is founded in mythological symbolism and it remain"). I don't mind anybody wanting to build a mythology around bonsai for themselves but I do mind when this showy stuff is used to direct how bonsai should be practiced or judged.

As a side note, as  wabi sabi is a concept widely talked about bonsai, one may be interested in noting the differences between the english and the japanese wikipedia pages on wabi/sabi : the english page is full of references to zen and buddhism and while the japanese one has only one. I think this is a good summary of what happens often while talking about Japan culture.


To go back to the main subject of the thread, can we defined bonsai as being mostly trying to represent big trees in small pots or not ?
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 09, 2010, 03:45 PM
From your posts, it's apparent you may think I am a bumpkin that learned about Japanese culture from Wikipedia. A bumpkin I may be, but I'm not a stupid one.

"As you pretend to know that there is symbolism in Japanese bonsai"
"I don't mind anybody wanting to build a mythology around bonsai for themselves but I do mind when this showy stuff is used to direct how bonsai should be practiced or judged."

I did not mention Zen or Buddhist imagery in Japanese art. YOU did...I am not judging your bonsai, nor am I building a personal mythology.

Japanese bonsai is founded on Chinese practices, yet the Chinese began bonsai because they saw trees and rocks as sentient things. Animism and mythology played a role in bonsai's travels through Asia, yet somehow it loses all that tradition when it jumps the sea to Japan? Explain...

http://www.suite101.com/content/ancient-animism-in-shinto-a190242 (http://www.suite101.com/content/ancient-animism-in-shinto-a190242)
http://www.breiling.org/publ/HistGardJapan01.PDF (http://www.breiling.org/publ/HistGardJapan01.PDF)

I "pretend" nothing. I have learned what I've said through personal experience. I haven't had the pleasure of asking a Kyoto kimono master his opinion of symbolism in Japan, but I have worked for a Japanese multinational company with Japanese. I am a bit familiar with the culture. And yeah, Japanese art (old and new and including bonsai)  is fraught with symbolism. I'd be very surprised if some of this artistic tradition hasn't rubbed off on bonsai.

http://www.amazon.com/Symbols-Japan-Thematic-Motifs-Design/dp/084782361X (http://www.amazon.com/Symbols-Japan-Thematic-Motifs-Design/dp/084782361X)
http://char.txa.cornell.edu/nonwest/japan/japanhis.htm (http://char.txa.cornell.edu/nonwest/japan/japanhis.htm)
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Mike Pollock on October 09, 2010, 05:50 PM
Alain,

If you want to meet and hear a Japanese nurseryman expound on the cultural, historical, and spiritual symbols of bonsai (and other Japanese arts), look no further than Seiji Morimae of Uchiku-Tei. An 18th generation nurseryman, Mr. Morimae is generous in his attempts to share these ideas with Westerners who ask.  The limitations are great (language and time are the most obvious), but  the opportunity is there for those who want to learn. I'll bet he could have a pretty high- level conversation with the kimono maker as well.

I think our perception of the lack of these symbols in bonsai is that we often only see trees in shows and not in the formal displays that use that symbology. When we do see those displays, there is rarely a nuanced explanation of what we are seeing and why it is used.  Just because we don't understand them doesn't mean they're not there.  
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 10, 2010, 03:40 AM
Quote
Japanese bonsai is founded on Chinese practices, yet the Chinese began bonsai because they saw trees and rocks as sentient things. Animism and mythology played a role in bonsai's travels through Asia, yet somehow it loses all that tradition when it jumps the sea to Japan? Explain...

I have already explained if, mind you.

Quote
One of the main differences between the Chinese type bonsai that the Japanese elite practiced for hundreds of years and contemporary Japanese bonsai is its lack of mythological content : bonsai trees must evoke real trees without references to Chinese cultural background (I think the same happened for Japanese gardens : they took their roots in Chinese culture, with a lot of symbolism that went away in modern time).

Modern Japanese bonsai has many many differences with bonsai that was done up to 1850-1900. See an example on one of the oldest know  picture of bonsai (this bonsai is still living but according to Kinbon, "it has no more value because the original intent of the artist was lost".  I think it is difficult to be clearer : bonsai changed suddenly around 1900 and things that were true before are not now. And you claim about  symbolism in Japanese culture (which is true in general) is irrelevant to modern bonsai whose intent is (mostly) to give an accurate representation of "real" trees.
By the way, some of your  links present the good old story of Shinto being the original religion of Japan, the curious reader will probably interested in knowing that this is now known to be wrong, and that  the short story is that Shinto is born from esoteric Buddhism, and  could get the long story in specialized work like issue of  Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. (http://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/publications/jjrs/jjrs_cumulative_list.htm#special2002). Demanding but rewarding read !

I mostly agree with Mike's statement that
Quote
our perception of the lack of these symbols in bonsai is that we often only see trees in shows and not in the formal displays that use that symbology. When we do see those displays, there is rarely a nuanced explanation of what we are seeing and why it is used
. Then again, this is still a very important difference from "old bonsai" where the symbolism lies within the tree itself, not the arrangement of the different parts and another very important is the level of abstraction of this symbolism. As far as know (and for this part, I am rather short), this extend is rather restrained and deals mostly with seasons or things like that with no mythological references. I remember a presentation in a kokufu where the artist had put several little beads between the tree and the shitakusa, his explanation is that they were "children playing under the tree at dawn".
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 10, 2010, 03:51 PM
" I think it is difficult to be clearer : bonsai changed suddenly around 1900 and things that were true before are not now. And you claim about  symbolism in Japanese culture (which is true in general) is irrelevant to modern bonsai whose intent is (mostly) to give an accurate representation of "real" trees.

I think that is a pretty broad statement that discounts a lot. :
Dragon Flying to the Clouds (collected 1979):
http://www.bonsaiinformation.com/Robert%20with%20Dragon.jpg (http://www.bonsaiinformation.com/Robert%20with%20Dragon.jpg)

And from Wikiepedia-"Goshin":
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goshin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goshin)

"Tora', also John Naka, there is also a companion called 'Ryu"--both the tiger and dragon according to Japanese mythology are in constant conflict:
http://www.bonsai-wbff.org/nabf/newsletter1/1j.htm (http://www.bonsai-wbff.org/nabf/newsletter1/1j.htm)

The formal upright cryptomeria bonsai is also said to resemble an armored samurai.

How many other well-known bonsai in Japan are known by evocative names?

To discount such imagery as "irrelevant" is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.







Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 10, 2010, 05:40 PM
Bozozoku also give name like tora, ryu and the like to their gangs or machines. Would you conclude that there is Chinese symbolism hidden into their cars ? Don't you think that giving a name and determining a tree's aesthetics are two different things ?

I am a little fed up of trying to demonstrate that symbolism is mostly of no importance, because from a logical point of view, this can't be done (it is absolutely impossible in the real world to demonstrate that something doesn't exist, one can only say that each time he tried to prove it existence he failed), so I am going to inverse the roles :

Personally, I have talked to mid to high level (but not top level) nursery owners  and Japanese amateurs and they never bother to evocate this problem, so can you  point me out references of a Japanese master explaining how important is  symbolism in modern Japanese bonsai ? In case you can't, I will consider this problem as solved.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on October 10, 2010, 09:44 PM
Yawn. Allain do you use chinese imagry to create your own bonsai?
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 11, 2010, 04:59 AM
Of course not. That would be very inconsistent with my definition of bonsai as being the representation of real trees in small pots. I do care for this definition because it frees bonsai from any fundamental link with Japanese culture, the very thing that Hotaction started with.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 11, 2010, 09:30 AM

"Would you conclude that there is Chinese symbolism hidden into their cars ? Don't you think that giving a name and determining a tree's aesthetics are two different things ?"

Well, a tree ain't a car designed by twenty-somethings on speed. I think that giving a name to a bonsai CAN be determined by its aesthetics and sometimes those aesthetics are aimed at ceating a particular image--"fuji" nebari on maples, etc. I don't think all is as cut and dried and inflexible as your opinion or that it fits so neatly into a pretty package.

Naka chose those names deliberately because of the trees' designs, based on his heritage and knowledge of Japanese mythology.

"I will consider this problem as solved."

Didn't really know it was a problem that needed to be solved...
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 11, 2010, 10:12 AM
Quote
"fuji" nebari on maples
Aren't we supposed to talk about symbolism ?

Quote
"I will consider this problem as solved."

Didn't really know it was a problem that needed to be solved...

You just forgot this part, which changes the meaning quite a lot

Quote
can you  point me out references of a Japanese master explaining how important is  symbolism in modern Japanese bonsai ? In case you can't, I will consider this problem as solved.

End of thread for my part, unless you get something more fact based.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: rockm on October 11, 2010, 11:09 AM
"Aren't we supposed to talk about symbolism ?"
The massive fused nebari on some Japanese maples (and sumo trunks) , at least from what I've read--(and I realize this makes me woefully ignorant with the intellect of a paramecium), is sometimes made to resemble the pyramidal outline of Mt. Fuji. I've read this in Kinbon...so it must be true... Symbolism and mythology associated with the mountain still, apparently, retain a a hold on the Japanese imagination for many reasons, some quite graphic, dark and GASP symbolic:
http://www.weirdasianews.com/2010/01/27/aokigahara-aka-suicide-forest/ (http://www.weirdasianews.com/2010/01/27/aokigahara-aka-suicide-forest/)

Yeah, I know, it's not scholarly deep reading...and it's not Kinbon, but hey I'm a lowly chimpanzee.

But a Chimpanzee that is just sayin that maybe your rigid, closely-held opinion may not be the whole picture and could be just as obnoxious as those of us who hold bonsai to strict rules and various traditional superstitious mumbo jumbo.




Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: John Kirby on October 11, 2010, 02:51 PM
Allain,
Glad to see that you are consistent. I just thought that I would check. I am glad to hear that you consider bonsai to be free of symbolism and purely a Mechanical Art, also known as a craft with an artistic intent. So, I guess with this interpretation we will soon be able to say that bonsai is a french art form that had Chinese origins prior to the perfection of the art in Europe. Seem fair?

John
(Herr Pall may say that the art was perfected in Germany with Austrian influences......).

;-)
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 11, 2010, 04:22 PM
Allain,
Quote
One "l" please ;)

Quote
Glad to see that you are consistent. I just thought that I would check. I am glad to hear that you consider bonsai to be free of symbolism and purely a Mechanical Art, also known as a craft with an artistic intent.
Oh, yes, I am perfectly OK with this definition which fit quite neatly with other Japanese crafts. I think this is a good intermediate between the conception I express my disagreement  with and the extremist position of Soetsu and the mingei movement who consider that an artistic intent is enough to ruin the aesthetics qualities of an object. It doesn't prevent the best bonsaist to be real artists though. For this aspect, I think that bonsai is much like calligraphy. Don't you feel more consistent that bonsai would be closer to calligraphy than to a full fledged western type art ?
Quote
So, I guess with this interpretation we will soon be able to say that bonsai is a french art form that had Chinese origins prior to the perfection of the art in Europe. Seem fair?
Not quite. You did forgot the Japanese step, so decisive to remove chinese  mythological inflences from bonsai and thus to offer it to the whole world, including those who wants to make it an Art with a big A.

It is not directly connected to bonsai, but one of the best Japanese historians, Kuroda Toshio, describes medieval Japan as being a "urban, money-centered society". I think this is pretty much still true of modern Japan and of its products, including bonsai ;)
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: MatsuBonsai on October 22, 2010, 11:00 AM
Last weekend the Louisville club hosted Doug Hawley (Cincinnati member and regular contributor to the ABS Journal) for a lecture/demonstration.  He had some interesting insight that reminded me of this particular thread.  He echoed sentiments similar to what Boon and John Kirby had to say.  The goal in bonsai is to make good trees.  Doug made a point to say that the (paraphrasing) "...Japanese rules are not merely Japanese, they are rules of nature," or something like that.

Last night I attended a lecture/demonstration in Cincinnati by Ryan Neil.  His thoughts were much the same.  He doesn't wish to create American bonsai, or Japanese bonsai, or "Naturalistic" (whatever that is) bonsai; he merely wishes to create good bonsai.  He continued to say (paraphrasing again) "...if you go to Kokufu and look at the trees they are all very natural.  They are good bonsai,"  again, or something similar.  He continued to say, "...if we want to create an American style bonsai, and be taken seriously, we need to create something new that is good, or better than others.  It's a purely American idea (he was careful to include himself as guilty, too) to break the rules, buck the norms, and abandon tradition.  It's a lazy approach to claim something as naturalist, simply because we can't (or won't) make something better," but delivered in a much more tactful manner.

I've often thought the same thing.  How can (why would) we buck the norms and throw out the experience of those that create master piece bonsai?  Is there nothing to learn there?  Would it not be better to stand on the shoulders of giants, and take our art form to new levels?

I think the debate between what is naturalistic, symbolic, Japanese, or Western is a silly one.  We should be striving to make the best trees we're capable of, and learn new techniques to improve our own capability.  After all, it's about the trees, not about the people, their egos, etc.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Tim Gardner on October 25, 2010, 06:55 PM
Right on John! Everyone... those "Japanese" techniques that Boon teaches me always produce results. I don't understand people saying that it is the Japanese way, it is their skills, not their way.

Tim
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: Alain Bertrand on October 26, 2010, 02:39 AM
Quote
I think the debate between what is naturalistic, symbolic, Japanese, or Western is a silly one.  We should be striving to make the best trees
Don't you feel  that what are the " best trees " is completely dependant upon aesthetics criteria that you may not want to study but that are nonetheless here and command your appreciation of any particular tree ?

The old bonsai whose picture I posted was one of the last shogun's so we may well guess that it was one of the "best trees " of that time.  Now, it is crap. Why ?
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: MatsuBonsai on October 26, 2010, 08:53 AM
Don't you feel  that what are the " best trees " is completely dependant upon aesthetics criteria that you may not want to study but that are nonetheless here and command your appreciation of any particular tree ?

The old bonsai whose picture I posted was one of the last shogun's so we may well guess that it was one of the "best trees " of that time.  Now, it is crap. Why ?

Um, I did and continue to study art, line, and bonsai.  The silliness comes into play when some offer up the argument, "oh, that's Japanese style, we should find our own style" while ignoring the fact that it's not that it's "Japanese style" it's that it's "good bonsai".

The fact that the tree posted was the last shogun's may or may not define it as the best tree of the time.  My best tree is no match for Kimura's best tree, etc.  It's a weak argument.  I hope, that with time, my trees will continue to improve and perhaps (dreaming, maybe) will be on par with the best in the country.  If someone wants to define them as a particular style or influence then I'm okay with that, as long as they are recognized for the level of quality they may or may not have.
Title: Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
Post by: MatsuBonsai on October 26, 2010, 09:05 AM
Though, I will admit, looking back through the Kokufu books from the last several decades the trees do seem to have improved with time.  I would imagine that new techniques were developed and old techniques perfected and shared with more bonsai practitioners.  Isn't that even more reason to learn from those that have been practicing, experimenting, and perfecting bonsai? 

As other countries continue to improve their own bonsai there will be much to learn from them, as well.  It's a very exciting time, if we're open to learning all there is to know.