Symbolism and suggestive elements are of great importance when displaying Shohin-bonsai. It is not about setting up a cute little dollhouse-like scene, which is sometimes seen in small tree displays.
The overall goal is to communicate the beauty of the changing seasons, as well as the power of the trees. This will be weakened if respect and humility are not present in the artist’s choices.
Just as bonsai is not a precise mimic of trees in nature, a display is not a precise mirror of a landscape, but an expression of feelings of nature. It may be better defined as a poem or a piece of music describing nature. Besides the presentation of trees, the display must express wind, light, and the smell of nature through a seasonal theme, rather than trying to impress with overdone colour and vitality.
It is always preferable to downplay expression rather than overdoing the display. Simplicity is the aesthetic preference of the Japanese art of bonsai, and highly important when setting up a display.
Overdone features will take the focus away from nature and direct it towards single items.
The following examples are suggestions that can be adapted or varied according to personal preference. They should give some insight into what the expressions of the seasons might contain. The main thing is to express the mood and beauty of the season; like a visual poem.
Spring is expressed by trees that show foliage in tender colours typical of the time of year. In early spring, deciduous trees without leaves but with swelling buds are a good choice, and later in spring, fragile new leaves can be presented. Spring flowering trees, and accent plants showing new growth, represent spring well alongside the characteristic delicate foliage pads of a juniper.
The use of open space in a spring display will suggest that new growth is on its way after the dormant period of winter. A tighter presentation will suggest a scene with the feeling of more growth and the vitality of low land vegetation, better used for late rather than early spring presentations.
In Japan there are no summer exhibitions. This should not hinder us to make a summer presentation though, and for Northern countries like Denmark, the summer invites to show this appreciated time of the year.
The freshness of flowers, berries, grasses, and the clear green leaves of deciduous trees are some of summer’s high points. They can be emphasized further in a display by yellow and blue pots. Combined with a black pine or a juniper, the summer theme is complete.
A display representing summer can be set up with a little more colourful pot than a spring presentation, telling the story of fertile growth, if this is what the artist wants to express with her summer theme. A flowering Satsuki azalea or a flowering Cotoneaster would be good in a display at this time of the year, but the theme could also be a much simpler expression.
Depending on the artist’s taste, the display might express coolness relating to summer nights, or mountain fields with the freshness of mild summer breezes.
Fall displays make use of the colours of leaf fall, and trees with berries. Depending on the time of the season, leafless trees can also be used, presenting berries or fruit in full glory.
Thin out berries and fruit on trees with heavy production; their beauty is presented better, and enjoyed more fully, when not drowning in a coloured mass.
Pots must complement the colours of the trees, and not steal the picture. White and clear blue pots work well, depending on the integration of the component parts.
As in the summer presentation, black pine or juniper work well with deciduous and fruit bearing specimens.
The winter display will by nature focus on a mood of modesty and emptiness. It is not necessary to make emphatically clear that the display is suggesting the winter season; however any objects or trees that might lead thoughts to another time of the year are inappropriate.
A five needle pine (white pine) would be a good choice because it doesn’t relate to any other season, and it expresses both dignified elegance and the physical strength necessary to take it through the cold and harsh conditions of winter. The cool light green needles give an impression of the colours of winter.
As an assistant tree, a leafless tree with old fruit would be a good choice for the early or mid-season. In late winter this would not be the right choice, because winter berries are gone by this time.
Clever use of space in the display will add the feeling of open fields in a winter landscape.
Winter is the most important time for Shohin-bonsai in Japan, when talking about exhibitions. The famous and prestigious Shohin-bonsai exhibition Gafu-ten in Kyoto, Japan, has been held every January since 1975.
The British Shohin Association has adopted this tradition, knowing that trees show at their very best in wintertime, allowing close study of the detailed branching of deciduous trees, and the fine winter foliage of conifers, and fully exposing the talent of the artists.
Seasons of display
But, as in Japan, Shohin-bonsai should be displayed all year round, because of the central theme of seasonal change and beauty. No season is better than the other, I find, but each one expresses different emotions. I have a slight preference for spring and summer presentations, though, due to the freshness, flowers and new growth.