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Art Composition

Artistic Composition and the Position of an Asymmetrical Nebari

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By Carl Bergstrom, USA

Focus Tree

Photo: Al Keppler

The unassuming tree pictured above recently provoked an extended and at times heated debate on one of the internet bonsai forums. The topic: the "proper" relation between the position and movement of a tree's surface roots and the position and movement of its trunk.

Most of the argument circled around physical metaphors. Is a slanting tree analogous to a construction crane, supported by broad base extending beneath the outreached movement of the trunk? Or is it like a billowing sail, held aloft by the tension in a network of supporting cables on the side away from the wind and the lean? Defenders of the tree pictured above argued the former in order to justify the heavy root extending out below the slanting base; detractors, for their part, argued the latter.

But of course the roots of any real tree act in both capacities. On the side away from the lean, they grip the soil and provide stability through tension; below the lean, the roots serve as a rigid base to support the trunk and canopy. Which, then, should the artist choose?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer returns to the language of composition and the way in which the position of the roots relates to the position and movement of the remainder of the tree. Depending on which side the strongest roots reside, the tree is supported primarily by one mechanism or the other -- and visually, we see this support expressing either compression or tension. These physical forces inherent in the structure of a tree are not without implications both emotional and compositional: the support by compression or tension must be accounted for in the overall design of the bonsai. This requires a logical explanation in the rest of the structure for how the tree rises from the ground, and this explanation must be consistent in both a physical sense and in an artistic sense. Tension requires obedience and compression requires release. How those dynamics are accounted for in the overall design is how we must measure the success or failure of the root configuration of a bonsai.

Further, these explanations must be freely visible to the viewer. A hidden system of support is unlikely to satisfy the mind's eye even if it should satisfy the calculations of an engineer. In a 1915 painting manual The Artistic Anatomy of Trees, Rex Vicat Cole explains:

"We know how much a standing [human] figure depends for its dignity upon is balance...so it is with a tree; in a well-poised trunk the larger limbs, and the foliage they carry, appear to be balanced without an effort....The balance I wish to call attention to is when the trunk leans or curves, but still supports the weight of foliage and boughs directly over its base [Figure 3]; or when the deviation of the line is excessive in one direction. We know that the roots of a tree ensure stability, so that the exact balance of the human figure is not essential, but "it requires an artful pencil," as Gilpin says, to draw possible lines in a leaning tree; these should not suggest an imminent upheaval. We seem to be more assured if we can see the mechanism that ties to the ground any upright form that is out of the vertical. I wonder if, whilst standing under a builder's crane, we should not watch its evolutions with more pleasure if we could see some counteracting weight to balance the stone swinging overhead?" (emphasis mine.)

Figure 4: Rex Vicat Cole's sketch of a leaning but balanced tree.

Figure 4: Rex Vicat Cole's sketch of a leaning but balanced tree.

Finally, we cannot resolve this debate solely by observing the natural growth habits of trees. We wish to represent natural trees, of course, but to copy them is not sufficient for the art. We need to find a way to create a harmony of visual balance and consistency of artistic elements. In Cole's words,

"We often see trees which seem not to have a true balance. To see them so in nature is one thing, to live with them in a picture is another -- and undesirable."

-Rex Vicat Cole, The Artistic Anatomy of Trees.

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