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Feature Article

Bonsai: Living Sculpture, Not Living Painting

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By Attila Soos and Will Heath, USA

Curt Holzinger 02.21.06

Printed with permission of the artist.
© Curt Holzinger 02.21.06

Bonsai is closer in comparison to sculpture than any other art form in existence today. When styling, viewing, and displaying a bonsai - or debating the artistic merit of design, people may wrongly compare this art to painting. Some also seem fixated on concentrating their efforts toward a single view commonly called the "front" and assume that what they believe to be the best "front" will also be perceived as such by all other viewers. In other words, they treat bonsai as though it was indeed a painting.

In this article we will give a brief history of what sculpture is and has been; define the various types of sculpture while showing which best describes bonsai; and show why bonsai should not only be accepted as true, living sculpture but why we would be wise to put the painting comparison to rest, once and for all.

What is Sculpture

Sculpture is the one of the world’s oldest known art forms; it has been a means of human expression since prehistoric times and has prevailed in every culture throughout the ages.

Sculpture can be defined as, "The art or practice of shaping figures or designs in the round or in relief, as by chiselling marble, modelling clay, or casting in metal."

Michael Binkley 02.21.06

Printed with permission of the artist.
© Michael Binkley 02.21.06

A more elaborate definition is, "The art of producing, in three dimensions, representations of natural or imagined forms. It includes sculpture in the round, which can be viewed from any direction, as well as incised relief, in which the lines are cut into a flat surface."

Another accepted definition is, "Sculpture is an art form that is three-dimensional. Sculpture can be viewed from all sides and angles, or it can be viewed from only one direction. When it is viewed from all sides, it is known as sculpture in the round. Sculpture seen from one direction only is called relief, or bas relief."

Taking from the three definitions of sculpture above, we can create a list of such that can be said to pertain directly to bonsai:

"The art or practice of shaping figures or designs in the round or in relief..."

"The art of producing in three dimensions representations of natural or imagined forms. It includes sculpture in the round, which can be viewed from any direction."

"Sculpture is an art form that is three-dimensional. Sculpture can be viewed from all sides and angles, or it can be viewed from only one direction."

As we can plainly see, bonsai fits into almost every single definition of sculpture and to consider it anything else is an exercise in futility.

Michael Binkley 02.21.06

Printed with permission of the artist.
© Michael Binkley 02.21.06

But, What About Painting?

Painting can be defined as, "Painting, a branch of the visual arts in which color, derived from any of numerous organic or synthetic substances, is applied to various surfaces to create a representational or abstract picture or design."

Another definition of painting is, "The process, art, or occupation of coating surfaces with paint for a utilitarian or artistic effect."

I see no correlation with the definition of painting and bonsai. In fact what many people fail to grasp is that painting is an effort to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface, which differs greatly from bonsai in which we attempt to portray a three-dimensional object using a three-dimensional surface.

There are many artistic considerations and basic values contained in painting that can also be attributed to bonsai, such as color theory, balance, perspective, and so on, but these things also exist in sculpture and considering the nature of bonsai and sculpture are nearly identical. Bonsai should be weighed against and compared to sculpture, though I would suggest never with painting.

As an art form, sculpture or bonsai differs greatly from painting in that they exist in actual space. They can be seen, touched, and even walked around. Painting may hope to suggest, on flat surfaces, the illusion of space, but it is actual space that is of concern to the bonsaist or sculptor.

Bonsai Further Defined; as Sculpture

There are three different forms of sculpture that we commonly see.

  1. Additive, this is when an artist starts with nothing, building the piece with clay or other materials. One well-known sculptor who practices this form is Lysiane Loung. (Starting a bonsai from seed could be put into this category as well as "adding" or growing new branches, apexes, and such.)
  2. Subtractive, this is what most people think of when they think of sculpture, the artist starts with raw material and cuts or carves away what is not necessary in the sculpture. Michelangelo is most likely one of the best-known sculptors to practice this form. (Bonsai fits so well in this description that it is considered by most to be subtractive sculpture.)
  3. Constructive, which is where an artist puts together materials with bolts, nails, or glue to create a sculpture. This differs from additive sculpture in the sense that constructive sculptures actually are built. The work of Alexander Calder is an excellent example of this form. (Grafting, fusing, and other techniques in bonsai may fit into this form, as well as wiring and shaping.)

It is easy to see, without stretching the facts, that bonsai indeed is sculpture. The only real problem is accurately defining which classification of sculpture we can apply to bonsai. From the foregoing, we can see that certain aspects of bonsai are associated with each of the major forms of sculpture.

Michael Binkley 02.21.06

Printed with permission of the artist.
© Michael Binkley 02.21.06

There is another form of sculpture that cannot be viewed from all sides - but to which certain bonsai could be compared. Relief sculptures are very similar in many ways to painting, most notably in that they are designed to be viewed only from the front. Most practitioners of bonsai take this approach to styling bonsai. They choose what they consider to be the perfect front and design around it, paying attention to the other sides only to give the illusion of depth and perspective, like a relief sculpture.

A Different Experience

What makes sculpture so unique amongst all art forms? Its uniqueness lies in that it needs to be explored like a terrain in order to be fully appreciated. Just like hiking on a mountain: at each turn something new is encountered. You are on an adventure full of surprising twists and turns.

The same is true of walking around a tree. I do this sometimes on my evening walks. As I approach a beautiful and imposing tree, I walk around it, watching the shape of its crown contrasting with the sky of the setting sun. As I slowly move around, the tree revolves in slow motion. Its branches open and close; converge upon and then depart from each other.

This is what makes the enjoyment of a sculpture so different from enjoying a two dimensional image with one viewing angle. As you look at it from different angles, the shapes rise, fall, and flow into each other. There is a special kind of interaction between you and the object: the constant discovery of its infinitely varied parts. It invites you to move around and explore. It changes every time you move. And there is another treat: the element of surprise. There is always some mystery on the other side. It doesn’t give you everything from one angle.

Bonsai is the perfect medium to be treated as sculpture. A tree is the personification of nature’s beauty. It is one of the subjects most admired in nature.

There are those who wonder why it is necessary to view a bonsai like a sculpture, from all angles. The experience of admiring a fine work of sculpture, as described above, should give them the answer. It would greatly enrich the experience of enjoying bonsai. To really understand it, one cannot do it just by reading this article. It has to be experienced by going to a museum and spending some time with a fine sculpture.

Creating a sculpture-like bonsai has another benefit. It doesn’t need a special exhibition space and elaborate setting. With one-sided viewing, one has to play special attention to "framing" and restricting the space, just as one does with a painting. The exhibition space must have its correct proportion and balance. A sculpture-like bonsai can be admired on its own, the only requirement being that it should be placed at the correct height, with some free space around it. It can be enjoyed in a more informal setting in our everyday life.

"So - what about all the guidelines abounding in the bonsai literature? Aren’t many of those ignored, when treating a bonsai like a sculpture?" , one may ask. The answer to that is that a bonsai artist needs to learn how to appreciate a sculpture, before he can create one. His bonsai training can be a great obstacle in this journey. But it can also be an asset, if used creatively. The perception of breaking bonsai rules will change, as soon as he realizes that bonsai and sculpture are part of the same e xperience, in the greater scheme of things.

Four-Dimensional Sculpture

Bonsai has another dimension that sculpture does not; it has the dimension of time. Regular sculpture is created and then it is done, displayed in its never-changing state. Well, never-changing except for the effects of the environment or conquering armies.

A bonsai is never finished, or as Vance Wood once said, "The only finished bonsai is a dead one." A bonsai changes over time, forcing its artist to continually create either to retain its current form or to bring it to its future form.

Bonsai and its related forms are unique in this four-dimensional aspect. The artist must take into consideration the present when creating the sculpture and they must also take into consideration the future of the creation. It is truly a four-dimensional art form.

Living Sculptures

Bonsai are constantly growing and changing, requiring the artist to continually participate in its changes, in its future; in its very state of existence. Bonsai and its related forms are unique also in this manner, they change, they grow, and they need almost daily care in order to survive. Because they grow, faults can be corrected over time; mistakes can be corrected; the sculpture can be restyled from time to time in order to maintain a visually pleasing form; changes can be made, commensurate with the experience level of the artist, and to reflect current trends and fashions in the art form.

Curt Holzinger 02.21.06

Printed with permission of the artist.
© Curt Holzinger 02.21.06

Use Sculpture To Learn Sculpture

As we have shown, bonsai is more like sculpture than any other art form and hence it only makes sense that we should compare it to sculpture. Comparing bonsai to painting; using painting to justify styling a bonsai; displaying bonsai as a painting; or trying to ascribe techniques of painting to the art of bonsai is not only futile, but could well be harmful to the art form. Why would we bend the techniques of creating and displaying paintings to fit bonsai when we can use an art form that mirrors bonsai in many ways?

Bonsai is called "Living Sculpture" for a very good reason. Isn’t it time we started treating it as such?

We thank sculptors Michael Binkley and Curt Holzinger for allowing us to reproduce images of their work here.

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