Author Topic: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic  (Read 11424 times)

tanlu

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #30 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.
« Last Edit: October 05, 2010, 09:09 PM by tanlu »
 

John Kirby

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #31 on: October 06, 2010, 10:21 AM »
Sorry Tanlu, I'll stick with Boon.
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #32 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.
 

John Kirby

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #33 on: October 06, 2010, 06:08 PM »
Thank Goodness for annealed copper wire, no more weights on strings........
 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #34 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.
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #35 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

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.
 

tanlu

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #36 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.
« Last Edit: October 08, 2010, 12:12 PM by tanlu »
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #37 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.
 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #38 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...

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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).

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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

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 ?

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  doesn't say so.
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #39 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...
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #40 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?
 

John Kirby

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #41 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
 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #42 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 ?
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #43 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.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://char.txa.cornell.edu/nonwest/japan/japanhis.htm
 

Mike Pollock

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #44 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.  
« Last Edit: October 09, 2010, 05:55 PM by Mike Pollock »