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Art Conventions


Artist and Design Integrity - Winter Display

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Text and photography by Richard Fish
Additional images by Carl Bergstrom


Wherein lies the beauty of a deciduous tree such as a maple or hornbeam? We seem, by our very actions, to believe that the true magnificence of a maple is in full leaf, while the Japanese tradition is very different. Given that our art was taken to its current position by mainly Japanese aesthetic guidelines and that we borrowed the art from the Japanese, just as they borrowed it from the Chinese mainland, why have our views on the display timetable diverged so radically? Have we managed in so short a time to choose a different paradigm to suit bonsai to our own aesthetic sensibilities, that says that deciduous trees should be shown in leaf, or perhaps, have we simply got it completely wrong? My assertion is the latter of these options.

There are of course, graceful deciduous bonsai and specific cultivars of species such as maple like beni-chidori or deshojo, that can equally successfully be shown as the new spring leaves appear, or in a final blaze of autumnal coloring; one presaging the optimism of the new, the other celebrating the final flourish before winter. Furthermore, there are individual specimen trees that have unique features such as exceptional bark or magnificent nebari that could successfully be displayed in leaf, as these unique features contain the major part of why these trees are admired. This article, whilst noting that these specific display possibilities exist alongside the opportunity to display bonsai in winter, examines our almost complete insistence to ignore the singularly best time of year to display most deciduous trees.

Japanese Art, Western Spirit
In Meiji period Japan, a favorite modernizers’ slogan was Wakon Yosai, "Japanese spirit, and Western technology." It was thought that by utilizing the inventions and institutions of the west but with application of the unique Japanese "way," the nation would catch up and compete on the world stage, after centuries of seclusion. The Japanese modernizers spent years studying various technologies from medicine to shipbuilding and the governmental institutions of many countries, in a quest to find the best practices in each field. The theory would only work, if the technologies were the best that was available. It did, and they were, though with pitfalls along the way.

In our virtual insistence on the display of deciduous trees in leaf, rather than during winter, we have accidentally stumbled upon our own misguided version of this theory. We have embraced the Japanese technology of bonsai, but now apply our own spirit to it, melding it with our "way," so that what was once the display of finely teased ramification of twigs, of gently tapering trunks and of subtle and aged movement of branches – possibly linked also to the Japanese tradition of the beauty of the impermanent, has now been bent to our "way" of the display of a canopy of foliage and little else. We have completely missed the point of deciduous display timing, and should reflect upon what we are doing seriously. Our western love of spring and summer and traditional dislike for winter, and what we interpret to be represented by it, could be a cause for this mistake. Linking the display of bonsai, not to artistic endeavor, but to gardening and craft, is another undoubtedly.

Artist Meets Gardener
I was lucky. I first encountered bonsai at an organized display that was devoted to bonsai. If I didn’t understand which trees were supposed to be better than others, I certainly understood immediately that these creations moved me and that I must get involved. Since then I have been to other bonsai exhibitions and two things are striking – neither, of which are a force for good. Firstly, the majority of bonsai exhibitions are tacked onto traditional gardening/flower shows and must by necessity conform to the organizer’s wishes which may not be conducive to the correct display of bonsai. This causes the twin evils of the public associating bonsai, de-facto, with simple gardening, and that bonsai must be shown during the spring and summer months while the flowers are in bloom.

Secondly, and even more worryingly, the major events have followed suit in this practice. The UK’s premier bonsai show run by ABBA takes place in June, right in the middle of the growing season when trees are absolutely not in the best shape for display, unless of course, the trees are being grown for their foliage outline, which they most certainly should not be. Not unless, that is, we are determined to misunderstand the art and force our way upon it instead. Incidentally, the show used to be in March, but was put back to June as the organizers felt that the trees would "look better."

The Ginkgo show – Europe’s finest, is equally adept at making decisions based upon misguided principles and quite magnificently times the exhibition for late summer. A more cynical person than I may draw the conclusion that these shows are timed to coincide with the maximum opportunity for making money from side-line ventures, rather than a pursuit of excellence in bonsai artistic display. The Noelanders Trofee is a notable exception to the above examples and is held in the winter months.

The Principles Behind the Timing

Bonsai exhibitions in Japan are timed during the winter months for a reason – actually reasons. Perhaps if we understand the reasoning, we may be able to relinquish our desire to view bonsai at the wrong times, when the trees will not be able to have their maximum impact upon us and begin to change the situation for the better.

Principle One – Impact
Deciduous bonsai, that is, good deciduous bonsai are infused with design integrity, meaning that the only time that we are able to see that integrity is once the trees have lost their foliage and all is revealed before us. Good deciduous bonsai do not need to hide behind a veil of foliage to show off their attributes. In fact, you would only want to see a great deciduous bonsai without foliage, for it is within the structure that the beauty is imparted. The aged bark, the graceful movement of trunks and branches, the ever-decreasing length and girth of the branches from trunk to twig and the "teased" ramification can only be seen during winter. These are all signs of old trees, and old trees have a power over our psyche and a story to tell. Only old trees in nature attain the levels of ramification that show them to be aged - when we think of an archetypal tree, it is invariably old. We are attempting to show this archetypal tree in our art display. A tree covered in foliage can show none of these attributes, and therefore, will have difficulty attaining the same level of impact or ability to communicate what the artist is saying.

A deciduous tree in winter can hide nothing – a poor bonsai, with trunk chops, scars, boring straight juvenile branches, will all be revealed and the illusion will be destroyed in a moment. This is where the real challenge of deciduous bonsai lies, in the ability to continue to suspend disbelief, even after the leaves have fallen. Designing a successful deciduous bonsai in leaf is one thing, designing one that really works in winter is a very different thing altogether, as the tree below amply demonstrates.

The tree above demonstrates that while a display in leaf can be quite effective, for the winter image to be equally effective, there needs to be more years of effort.

The tree below (part of the Pacific Rim permanent collection), may be not much more successful in leaf than the tree above, with an obvious lack of nebari. However, during the winter display, the skill taken to create such branch lines and dense ramification causes the eye to rest, not on the flaws, but on the canopy. The message imparted is much more powerful as a result.

Principle Two: Horticulture
A lesser known reason for the display of deciduous bonsai in winter is horticultural – and it is a double-faceted reason at that.

Firstly, deciduous bonsai can never attain the structure that is so desirable, by the "hedge-trimming" mentality. Without knowledge of bonsai techniques, we would have little grasp of exactly how to create a good aged-looking line, and absolutely no idea about how to create the fine ramification that we look for in successful bonsai. Instead, bonsai are treated like hedges or topiary, being trimmed to an outline shape whenever the tree grows outside of its boundary line of foliage. This method destroys bonsai. All outer growth becomes extension growth that will always have long internodes, be boringly straight and too thick. What to do? Of course, one answer is to never show these bonsai out of leaf.

The real answer is to learn the correct techniques that will mean that the bonsai has the necessary design integrity to be successful in a winter display. These techniques include letting the bonsai grow in certain areas outside of its nice foliage boundary, in the full knowledge that, although it looks like a mess to Mrs. Jones next door, come the winter pruning, it will be all the better. This leads onto the second facet of the horticultural reason behind the display of bonsai in the winter months – that of the use of dormancy.

Prune any deciduous bonsai at most times of the year and you will get a reaction from the tree. These reactions are vital for us to be able to create bonsai at all, but, during the brief period after leaf drop before winter, we can then prune deciduous bonsai for their real purpose in life – the winter image – without causing disruption and without the trees’ growing more to counteract our pruning. The tree will now remain in stasis, as if frozen in time, for us to display for the coming months without worry and without change.

The Challenge

As bonsai artists, we are doing ourselves a great disservice by continuing to accept that deciduous trees are viewed in leaf. The art that we are trying to create in order to elicit a response from the viewer is diluted enormously by having to show our art in less than ideal circumstances, and during periods when we should be allowing the tree to grow. This practice is not benign by the way, it is akin to only opening the museum doors during the night with the lights off, giving people just the barest glimpse of what is there, but leaving most of the story untold. It is bonsai masochism borne of misunderstanding which, at its roots, has an embarrassment to elevate our art above the vegetable garden and an ignorance of bonsai horticultural technique. It should be banned.

As bonsai artists, do we wish to work towards integrity in our work, or against it? Are we bold enough to challenge our trees, and ourselves and admit that if we are to have integrity as bonsai artists, our bonsai art must also have the same integrity in design? Are we strong enough to work towards developing our trees to be shown at the most challenging, yet possibly rewarding times of year? Or, like our trees, are we to hide behind a veil to protect ourselves?

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