Artistic Limitations in Bonsai
Text & Illustrations by Richard Fish, UK
Defining Bonsai Art
Bonsai as an art form, as opposed to a horticultural pastime, is often portrayed and likened to sculpture by its proponents. We often hear the term ‘living sculpture’ bandied around - and many seem to accept that this is an adequate description when trying to define bonsai art in a Western cultural context, or when attempting to define and categorize bonsai as an art. This description has its uses and I can certainly appreciate why, given the three-dimensional nature of bonsai art, (one could argue four dimensional nature), that this viewpoint might become prevalent and generally accepted. However, I would like to offer a differing concept of bonsai art classification, although it may not be anywhere near as succinct.
From the form and shape of bonsai, what is wrong with likening it to sculpture
that is alive? One would imagine that as both bonsai and sculpture possess
the characteristics of physical depth, usually with a definite ‘front’ viewpoint
for viewer appreciation, this description is not only adequate, but also
ideal. It neatly encapsulates for someone who either has little experience
of bonsai, or remains unconvinced of its artistic nature, some key elements
that help link one art form to another and attempt the beginnings of an explanation
of its relevance. Unfortunately, this description merely takes account of
the outward form of bonsai and cares nothing for the limitations imposed
upon the artist by the medium itself.
The Challenge of Limitations
All forms of art have their limitations on our creative ability to express our concepts, and the greater the limitation to our creative ability, the harder it becomes to create good art. It is within these limitations that the real challenge of bonsai as art, is found - as bonsai has quite a few limitations. Below I would like to explore a few examples of common visual arts and their limitations for the artists involved.
Within the visual arts, painting has few limitations to creative expression. Beyond the obvious eternal artistic limitation of money that all artists face to greater or lesser degree, painters are free to explore their creative abilities almost without constraint. Paintings can be re-touched, mistakes can be painted over and the cost barrier to entry is low for aspiring artists in this medium.
Photography on the other hand, has many limitations as an art form to the artist’s creative expression – so many in fact, that some do not consider it an art at all in the true sense. The photographer must find his subject, rather than having the ability to create it from his imagination; and once it is found, the photographer-artist has nowhere near the same level of direct ability to control the final result and express his creativity that the painter has. Where the painter has the ability to change and direct anything and everything that his creative imagination desires, the photographer is limited by the nature of the medium to a much greater degree. The culminate limitations of time (as the shutter closes), difficulty in manipulation of the subject matter, natural lighting and weather conditions and the recording nature, (rather than the interpretive nature), of the equipment itself are all limitations that give rise to challenges that the photographer-artist must overcome for his art to be successful.
Sculpture could be considered to lie somewhere between these two extremes of creative flexibility – giving the artist much freedom of expression, but certainly without much of the scope that painting has for large error correction and changes to composition.
The Limitations of Bonsai
Everyone will appreciate the following limitations, but they are worth stating in the context of this discussion.
Time is a huge limitation in bonsai and it manifests its challenges on two separate fronts:
Firstly, no matter how much we, as artists, can see the exact image that our concept and expression is attempting to create, time always slows us down. The densely ramified maple that we know can be a powerful and expressive image, is still four years away, even assuming all goes well. Of course, time can also be a teacher and a restraining hand, giving it both benefits and challenges.
Secondly, the influence of time (as pointed out by C. Lewis in The Art of Bonsai Design, among others), works at the other extreme – moving our creations in directions that need to be compensated for once they have reached the pinnacle that we have envisaged.
The medium of working with living material provides its own unique set of limitations. Whereas the painter of a tree can add features and detract them at will in short order, the bonsai artist must work within this limitation knowing not only what is possible, but also with the understanding that the possible is also subject to the ravages of time too.
Despite our ongoing and primeval desire to conquer nature and impose our will upon it, nature lives by its own rules and not ours. For example, trees can loose major branches, integral to our design, as if by will, leaving the artist with material that either needs to be re-designed or forgotten. Pests and disease can attack our work. Even hailstorms and gales can decimate collections without warning.
Although most art is collaborative to some degree, the nature of bonsai art means that it is necessarily more collaborative than some others. A successful bonsai display needs an integration between potter and artist, (not to mention stand-makers, backdrop composition, lighting, scroll art etc), that needs to be finely tuned to the overall composition.
Unlike a completed painting, sculpture or photograph, bonsai are alive. They need continual attention, not just to remain at their peak, but also to actually remain intact as pieces of art at all. A dead bonsai is like a burned painting – memory and historical records may remain, but the work itself is lost forever.
We have all heard the expression – "No bonsai is ever finished," and I couldn’t agree more. This limitation is closely linked to that of time and has also, like time, associated benefits and challenges. The benefits are that our work may continually improve and advance; the challenge is that if we ever hope that a piece of work is finished, then we are sadly mistaken.
Re-defining Bonsai Art
So the question is, where does this discussion leave bonsai as an art form and how can we define it, (should we wish to), in relation to other Western arts? Can bonsai be seen to be so constrictive to the artist in its limitations, as to verge on non-art and merely be snobbish gardening? Or rather, is it an art form that challenges the artist across multiple complexities and layers, that ultimately requires us to work that bit harder within the inherent limitations of the form to be successful in communicating the concepts of our work?
For me at least, bonsai is more akin to some sort of intersection between sculpture, photography and painting than it is to ‘living sculpture.’ We, as bonsai artists, do not have the beautiful freedom of painters; neither do we face the constriction of the photographer; nor do we face the inability to ‘add’ to our designs that is faced by the sculptor and the photographer both (computer renditions notwithstanding). Thinking of bonsai as 'living sculpture' could be a useful reference for the viewer, but ultimately too simplistic for the artist.