Author Topic: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic  (Read 11029 times)

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #45 on: October 10, 2010, 03:40 AM »
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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.

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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.. Demanding but rewarding read !

I mostly agree with Mike's statement that
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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".
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #46 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

And from Wikiepedia-"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

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.







 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #47 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.
 

John Kirby

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #48 on: October 10, 2010, 09:44 PM »
Yawn. Allain do you use chinese imagry to create your own bonsai?
 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #49 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.
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #50 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...
 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #51 on: October 11, 2010, 10:12 AM »
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"fuji" nebari on maples
Aren't we supposed to talk about symbolism ?

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"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

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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.
« Last Edit: October 11, 2010, 10:18 AM by Alain Bertrand »
 

rockm

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #52 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/

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.




 

John Kirby

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #53 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......).

;-)
 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #54 on: October 11, 2010, 04:22 PM »
Allain,
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One "l" please ;)

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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 ?
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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 ;)
 

MatsuBonsai

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #55 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.
 

Tim Gardner

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #56 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
 

Alain Bertrand

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #57 on: October 26, 2010, 02:39 AM »
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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 ?
 

MatsuBonsai

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #58 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.
« Last Edit: October 26, 2010, 08:56 AM by MatsuBonsai »
 

MatsuBonsai

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Re: Bonsai and the Japanese aesthetic
« Reply #59 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.