Feature Article

Bonsai as a Western Art

Are we denying our own cultural heritage in our persuance of Japanese style?

Discuss this article >>

By Colin Lewis

Bonsai as a Western Art

IT DOESN'T REALLY matter whether our individual fascination with bonsai began via gardening, art or a general interest in things oriental, we all have much to learn. Those who were introduced to bonsai through gardening will have the knowledge and confidence that will give them a head start in the horticultural processes involved. Those who came to bonsai from an artistic background will already have a grasp of the aesthetic principles of line, form, balance, etc. Those who's bonsai activities began with a general interest in Japanese art and culture are likely to be able to understand the philosophical requirements of this demanding discipline.

However, the latter are in the greatest danger of making a fundamental mistake: that of trying to copy the Japanese rather than learning from them. The difference may be subtle, but it is very significant. The Japanese have built up their wealth of knowledge over centuries, so we rightly turn to them for practical horticultural and artistic guidance. In this way we have the advantage of being able to become reasonably proficient in a relatively short time. But it is important not to lose sight of our own cultural background when designing our bonsai.

A major turning point in my bonsai thinking was when I heard John Yoshio Naka say: 'Don't try to make your tree look like a bonsai - try to make your bonsai look like a tree'. At first this seems like an obvious piece of advice. But how often do you hear novices talk about 'Japanese shapes' or display their trees amidst an eclectic clutter of oriental paraphernalia? Whether your personal preference is for lifelike representations of lowland specimens, rugged mountain trees, or almost abstract living sculptures, in the final analysis, we are all trying to reach a similar goal - that of creating an aesthetically pleasing, more or less tree-like image. But what qualifies as 'tree-like' to the individual depends very much on his or her cultural and environmental background.

Although Japanese and western cultures are, literally, a world apart, there are a number of comparisons that can be made, particularly in the way trees have been depicted by artists in two-dimensional form. This must inevitably have a profound impact on our mental images of the 'fantasy' trees we are trying to create - in both cultures.

In Japan there were no great master landscape painters such as Constable or Vermeer, in fact one-off paintings of any kind were rare. The majority of Japanese pictures were narrative - illustrating a story or legend, often reproduced in large numbers from woodcuts. (The lack of perspective and tonal depth in Japanese woodcuts could, in part, explain why a bonsai has a 'front', and is not a truly three-dimensional work of art.) To find a historical western equivalent we must look at artists such as Gustave Doré and Thomas Bewick, whose illustrations were also reproduced in print form, but from wood engravings, cut into the end grain of the wood. The far more intricate line work that could be introduced in wood engravings meant that their images of trees contained far more depth and texture, although only in black and white.

The print above (c1825) is typically Japanese, yet its artist depicted the maple foliage the the right of the picture in precisely the same way that Bewick handled the oak foliage on the overhanging branch in the wood engraving on the right.

The print above (c1825) is typically Japanese, yet its artist depicted the maple foliage the the right of the picture in precisely the same way that Bewick handled the oak foliage on the overhanging branch in the wood engraving on the right.

A major influence on the Japanese woodcut artists' depiction of trees was the fact that art and calligraphy were inextricably linked. Woodcut artists were influenced by the fluid, single brush-stroke trunk lines and vague hints of foliage. A few bold lines and simple areas of colour can tell us all there is to know. This simplified approach to art was reinforced by the minimalist teachings of Zen Buddhism which pervades all aspects of Japanese culture. It is easy to see how this has influenced the Japanese approach to bonsai.

On the other hand, the wood engravers in the west were influenced by the landscape painters' quest for realism and detail and, indeed, the public demanded it. Since the use of colour was uneconomic and impractical, they developed techniques using light, shade and intricate detail to achieve this end. As a result their illustrations were heavy, sombre and rather intense.

If we move forward to this century, we can find a more direct comparison between western and Japanese depictions of trees. The same use of simple line, flat areas of colour and distillation of form of the Japanese print became necessary in the west with the development of cartoon animation. To be visually (and economically) successful in cartoon form, images of trees have to be simplified; carefully analysed and broken down to their basic elements. Only the bare essentials are retained, just enough to describe the tree. These elements are presented in a way that also evokes the character and spirit of the tree and sets the mood of the scene. Isn't this exactly what we try to do with our bonsai design, albeit in three dimensions and with a more complex medium?

If you look carefully at the way trees of both familiar and unfamiliar species are drawn in Walt Disney films such as Jungle Book, you will see some startling comparisons with Japanese woodcut prints. In fact the early animators learned much from studying the Japanese artists' techniques, but did not copy their style because their culture, subject matter and audience were entirely different.

Once we recognise the common aims, problems and solutions between the Japanese two-dimensional artist and the Japanese bonsai artist, it easy to acknowledge a parallel relationship between the western bonsai artist and the cartoon animator. And since we are westerners, whose vision of trees is influenced by western environmental and cultural factors, it could be argued that we have as much to learn about simplified images of trees from Walt Disney's animators as from the Japanese artists.

The point of this culture-shock treatment is to bring bonsai another step west. There are many taboos and superstitions in Japanese bonsai, all rooted throughout society. If bonsai is anything like an art form, then it must, to some extent, be self-expressive. What we want to express about trees and our emotional response towards them must, surely, be rooted in our culture.

I am not suggesting that we all turn to Donald Duck for inspiration, but if you want some guidance on how to produce credible, emotive, highly simplified images of trees, you may find it more useful to refer to some of the better animated cartoons than spend precious time and effort trying to negotiate your way around the distractions of the cultural, philosophical and artistic differences that exist between us and the Japanese. If we try to copy the Japanese I and attempt to produce 'Japanese shapes' or 'Japanese-looking' bonsai we will more than likely be frustrated.

Our trees... our heritage

There is much talk about developing a western style, or even a British style of bonsai. In order to begin any such task we must recognise that our natural environment is an enormous influence on whom we are, and why we are so obsessed with creating bonsai. Surely, before we can begin to develop our own styles we must filter out all those bonsai teachings that are uniquely cultural, or even philosophical, and replace them with our own. Inevitably we will continue to be heavily influenced by Japanese bonsai artists, but we must learn that it is not a sin to reject that influence from time to time, and to do our own thing.

This saikei of English elm couldn't be less oriental in its inspirational source. It is typical of the now lost landscape I grew up in. It touches my soul far more than any grove of trident maples ever could.

This saikei of English elm couldn't be less oriental in its inspirational source. It is typical of the now lost landscape I grew up in. It touches my soul far more than any grove of trident maples ever could.

Consider some of-the common sights in the countryside here in the UK. 'Stag-headed' oaks, for example, with their dead branches protruding through the canopy, or willows with hollow trunks from root to crown. Further afield, ancient olives in southern Europe are similar in 'style'. Jins and sharis are taboo on broadleaved bonsai in Japan, but here they happen in real life so why not in bonsai? However, they have to be the right kind of jins and sharis. The shapes, texture and colour of traditional jins all work with conifers. The same treatment would not necessarily suit natural broadleaved styles.

Scots pine - I've seen 'em from Moscow to Madrid. It's the same tree but the character changes as drastically as the climate. The now classical semi-literati style of scots pine, mastered by Peter Adams, is specific to this part of Europe. I was given a pine by a Russian bonsai lover who had collected it from the Caucasus mountains in the Crimea. He had never even seen pictures of japanese bonsai so he had begun to train the tree in the natural style of that area - low, spreading. He also gave me some pictures to help me carry on. While on the subject of pines, what about the 'umbrella' pine along the Mediterranean coast? Now there's a style waiting to be developed ,analysed and perfected!

The ariel-rooting figs of the tropics have natural habits not found in any Japanese species nor, therefore, in Japanese bonsai. Yet there are many highly regarded examples produced by fine bonsai artists. These images are deeply rooted in their psyche, but do they mean as much to us, or are they merely 'interesting'? Since the natural growth habit that these bonsai echo is entirely alien to us, I suggest the latter is true, but none the less valid for that.

Now you may be content with having an interesting bonsai, but I suspect that if you are still reading this you are more ambitious than that. If you are anything like me, there is something about trees which touches your soul. It stems from somewhere in the subconscious - childhood memories of sights, sounds and smells. Every time you work on a tree this is reflected in your work until, eventually it reaches out and touches the soul of others.

We should learn the techniques which help the Japanese achieve the results they do with their bonsai, and apply this knowledge to creating trees which suit our own cultural tastes and reflect our own environment and our emotions towards it. We will then be free to interpret the natural shape, growth habit and, above all, spirit of native species in bonsai form, and to do so in a way that is readily accessible to a western audience.

Article reprinted with permission of the author, Colin Lewis.
For more information on Colin Lewis please see his on-line interview at http://artofbonsai.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=719
Other articles and information from Colin can be seen on his webpage at http://www.bonsaiforum.com

Discuss this article >>