Why a bonsai should look like a bonsai

Text and photos (C): Morten Albek

After publishing a few comments are added due to a question raised at Facebook. Inserted comments to the article, edited March 14th are marked *

For years it has been discussed if a bonsai should look like a tree in nature, or bonsai just looks like bonsai do. There even is a saying that tells, “don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, but make your bonsai look like a tree”.

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Japanese white pine at the Bonsai Museum in Omiya.

 

But that is a truth with some contradictions. Although we want our bonsai to depict a tree in nature, it is not a copy we produce. If we follow the path of the Japanese bonsai tradition, a bonsai have its own aesthetic preferences, which makes it look more like a bonsai than a natural reproduction of a tree scaled to miniature size. The Japanese tradition is making an implied image of a tree, with all the best characteristics pulled out and refined in the bonsai. Age as main factor, reflected in old bark, twisted branches, refined twigs and a root base that shows strength as basic guidelines, supported by the pot and seen as a whole.

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Acer palmatum at the Bonsai Werkstatt in Düsseldorf, Germany.

 

Others, primarily in the west, has an approach of more naturalistic trees, that are closer to be one to one with trees seen in the environment. With less refinement, and a looser appearance. This can be argued to be a pure aesthetical preference, or the devil will say, laziness not completing the long termed task it is to fulfill and develop the final and very refined Japanese version. The aged look is sometimes lost in translation, but the style have its friends and this will surely hold on in the future too. Trees may not look as sold as the Japanese version, but with the historic background and cultural differences in mind people may look different at the same subject, and therefore acting their own way.

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Japanese white pine at Daizo Iwasakis garden in Japan. The wide soft top of the canopy is typical for the Japanese style bonsai.

Japanese bonsai are very much based on the hundred of years old trees seen in the Japanese mountains. Many with a compact rounded top of the canopy, because the aged trees has reached their growing limits, and develops these characteristics. Therefore many Japanese style bonsai has this kind of soft and wide canopy, not seen as often in the western European naturalistic style. The rounded wide canopy may seem overdone by some westerners, but it is bonded with the tradition of bonsai in Japan.

 What is a traditional, or maybe better said, classical Japanese bonsai? Japanese bonsai has a very long history, and has developed through hundred of years. In a western perspective, we have only really known bonsai as they have been presented to us after the 2nd World War. That is a very short history of bonsai, only counting 60 years, give and take. That is the period we often refers to, talking classical or traditional bonsai, even though the Japanese bonsai has a far wider history. Because this is the period we see pictures from, or what is shown to us at this time.

Rather than letting your bonsai look like a tree,

you might want to make your bonsai look like a bonsai.

The Japanese bonsai very much has its style based on its history and tradition. Therefore a bonsai may look more like a bonsai than a tree.

This may sound a bit controversial, when we have been teached to look at trees, their style and appearance, learning to reflect this in our bonsai. Shouldn’t the bonsai look like a tree then? Yes, but in an implied way. Like the artist translating her/his motive on the canvas, or the sculptor who forms the vision of a human body e.g. All has its background in history and changes with time. None of it is a one to one copy of the real item, but a translated version. This also is so with bonsai. Therefore we will find varieties of bonsai styles, although it comes from the same source.

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Chinese Shohin-bonsai exhibition with both Penjing style bonsai and classical Japanese style trees.

Chinese bonsai has a different cultural background, and China was the motherhood for bonsai by the way. In China Penjing (Bonsai) are shaped sometimes as symbols, and have different appearances than the Japanese versions. In modern China today, Japanese bonsai are flowing into the market, and a mixture of the Japanese and original Chinese bonsai tradition is seen a Chinese bonsai nurseries and exhibitions today. At the first large Shohin exhibition I attended in 2014, it was funny to see how both Japanese imported and styled bonsai was mixed with the original Chinese Penjing style. Even in the same display.

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Chinese pot.

Also pots are exchanging hands from Japan to China, as economy grows in China. That means that valuable Japanese pots goes to China, as well as chinese collectors buys back original antique Penjing containers that were sold to Japan years ago. In the west a lot of bonsai pots are produced because we have a rich tradition of pottery. This also influences the style of bonsai, when trees are combined with another style of pot, developing another presentation of the bonsai art.

Bonsai in the modern times are influenced by artists that are are inspired by a variety of impressions from around the world. Even without travelling anywhere, because the Internet make the access to photos and video easy. There is a risk of the overall picture getting muddy, if we do not understand the history of bonsai. Bonsai will develop and we will search for new ways, or cling to tradition, but it is important we to know the background of it all whatever way we choose.

It is of importance to know on which shoulders we stand. It is only by knowing what was before, we can move forward and develop what we are doing. If we do not know the heritage of bonsai, on what experience shall be then build? It will be like shooting blindfolded into the air, hoping to hit something, and often even not knowing when we hit.

* My wife is an experienced painter. She paints modern paintings, but wouldn’t be able to do her artworks as she does, without having a art history to lean on. It gives a huge advantage to know what was before, being able to succeed moving forward.

Grow the new bonsai in respect of the old and the history from which it derives. Without we may loose the grip and produce something that is lost in translation, and devalue the importance of bonsai as art.

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Penjing at the Shanghai Botanical Gardens, China.

 

 

 

 

 

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