Critique: The Maleficent Tree
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Author:  Carl Bergstrom [ Sat Feb 26, 2005 12:21 am ]
Post subject:  Critique: The Maleficent Tree

This thread is for discussing Carl Bergstrom's critique article, "The Maleficent Tree"

Author:  Reiner Goebel [ Sun Feb 27, 2005 1:29 am ]
Post subject: 

Trunk diameter: 10" at soil line

The trunk isn't at soil line. It's way above it. Seems to me we're confusing roots and trunk. Unless this is a double trunk. In that case: which of the two trunks measures 10"?

Author:  Lisa Kanis [ Mon Feb 28, 2005 8:00 am ]
Post subject: 

What struck me first of all is that this is an impeccable piece of work, impeccably planted in an impeccable bonsai pot.

Is it perhaps partly for that reason that I cannot see it as "maleficent"?
The face, to me, suggests that of a deer, quite at home in a woodland atmosphere. Carl's dramatic description,

The sunken hollow eyes lock onto the viewer ; the flesh of the nose has rotted away leaving just the nasal cavity of a skull; the mouth looms wide. The network of darker lines running through the soft bark suggests pulsating veins through rotted skin. The swelling wood has twisted the face into an asymmetrical and bulging agony.

evokes in me quite a different sort of image.
"Bulging agony"? For heaven's sake!!!

Perhaps, if a tree so clearly "tells a story", one should leave the reading to the viewer.

As to your question, Carl, why the "maleficent tree" is so rare in bonsai: well, it isn't. Quite recent examples, although not purposefully styled as such, can be found in the exhibition of the Noelanders Trophy event. See

Author:  Attila Soos [ Mon Feb 28, 2005 1:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Lisa Kanis wrote:
"Bulging agony"? For heaven's sake!!!

That's funny.
It's interesting how, since Lisa mentioned the image of the deer, the tree became much friendlier to me.
I agree that the story should be left to be decided by the viewer. But the critic doesn't have that luxury. The critic tells his own version, often sounding more opinionated than he really is, just to provoke the reader into discussion and possibly expose some new perspectives.

Author:  Carl Bergstrom [ Mon Feb 28, 2005 1:42 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Attila Soos wrote:
I agree that the story should be left to be decided by the viewer. But the critic doesn't have that luxury. The critic tells his own version, often sounding more opinionated than he really is, just to provoke the reader into discussion and possibly expose some new perspectives.

Exactly, Attila.
A critic doesn't act in a normative capacity. He or she doesn't tell people what a piece of art does mean, or what emotions they should feel when looking at it, or how it should have been constructed.. A critic aims to help a viewer expand his or her appreciation of a given art piece. (And this requires that a critic actually have and express opinions.) The poet W. H. Auden framed the role of a critic beautifully:
What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:
1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself becaues I do not know enough and never shall.
4. Give a "reading" of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5. Throw light upon the process of artistic "Making."
6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.
W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand. 1963

As I've said elsewhere, what a wonderful set of things to do for those of us who either create or appreciate bonsai! Bonsai needs more critics. I hope that this section of the Art of Bonsai Project can provide a forum for this sort of discussion, and I hope that in my own writing I can fulfill some of the goals that Auden has listed.
With my best regards,

Author:  Attila Soos [ Mon Feb 28, 2005 5:46 pm ]
Post subject: 

I like that list about the role of the critic a lot. I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding about this role, and a list like this can help diffuse all that.
Back to the scaryness of this tree, being scary is such a subjective quality.
I grew up right next to a cemetery in Transylvania, and we as little kids used to play amongst the tombstones and inside the burial chambers day and night. Sometimes we even had a nap in one of those chambers. For some people being in an old-fashioned cemetery in the dark would qualify as scary, but for us it was our home (and no, I am NOT related to Dracula).

Author:  Lisa Kanis [ Mon Feb 28, 2005 8:37 pm ]
Post subject: 

Thanks, Attila and Carl. Interesting posts!
Carl, each of us here is a critic.

As author and chief critic, doing one's best to expand the insight of a viewer/reader into a work of art is certainly not just worthwhile, but necessary. I gladly give you that. However, a strong personal overlay should in my opinion be avoided.

How would it be if, for instance, some of the statements were formulated as questions instead? These have suggestive power, which works more subtly and sometimes more efficiently.

I also miss a discussion of the tree as a bonsai. The section concerning the structural details serves mainly to support the premise that this is a "maleficent" tree. Well, it is an X-shaped, miniature tree planted in a bonsai pot (beautiful! wish I had one like it!), which has a great trunk with a curiously symmetrical split, and asymmetrical branching, the main part of which nicely follows the curved trunk line. While unconventional to a degree, it has balance and its own sort of aesthetic appeal. Don't know how else to put it. I should like to know how Nick sees the future of the tree, especially where the branching is concerned.

Author:  Carl Bergstrom [ Mon Feb 28, 2005 11:20 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Agreed - each of us here is a critic - and that will make this forum a very interesting read of the weeks, months, and years to come.

I find that the "appropriate" tone of a piece - whether one uses subtle questions or states forceful opinions, for example - depends very much on the intended audience. The Art of Bonsai project is aimed at a sophisticated audience that together share an interest in passionate but respectful discussion and debate. I figure that this audience can quite ably handle a few strong perspectives and powerful assertions here or there, and that such might actually be the best way to provoke the ensuing discussion that these pieces are intended to generate. If I were writing this piece as part of the bonsai section* of a high school text on art, a more open-ended, questioning tone might be much more appropriate.

Thank you also for drawing the discussion to the formal aspects of the tree more generally. As you say, the tree is indeed well-balanced. That's an interesting observation, for if the aim was simply to create an image of the grotesque, balance would play little role in the composition (and perhaps would be deliberately avoided.)
With my best regards,

*Bonsai section of a high school art text??? I can dream, can't I?

Author:  Michelle Gray [ Tue Mar 01, 2005 3:26 pm ]
Post subject:  On Criticism

When I was writing book and entertainment reviews for my husband's newspaper, I sometimes became a little "stuck" on what I wanted to say about a particular work. Louis kept it simple for me.
1. What was the artist/author trying to accomplish?
2. Did he or she succeed?
3. In what ways were they successful, and in what ways could they have done better?
4. What is your overall impression, and
5. Would you reccommend that others pay attention to it?
I really found these guidelines to be useful, and think they could apply to bonsai critique as well.

Author:  John Dixon [ Thu Mar 03, 2005 4:49 pm ]
Post subject: 

The tree gives a sense of forboding. It conjures up scary thoughts of child-like nightmares to me. Because of that, it has high artistic worth. From a standpoint of styling, a lot of "standards" are broken (like the high roots), BUT the use of non-standard techniques produces an artistic expression to the viewer. That makes it noteworthy.

I always wonder if a critic's stance changes drastically when involved in the sale or purchase of a bonsai.
It would lead one to conclude the level of sincerity in their critiques. Sorry that sounds materialistic, but I do ponder the notion.
Maybe a new reality show in the making.

Author:  Rob Kempinski [ Fri Mar 04, 2005 9:45 am ]
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The role of art is to communicate and this tree does that well the message of course varies depending on the viewer, like a Rorschach Inkblot. The three holes on the trunk , whether natural or not look like a face and I find them distracting- always a risk with anthropometrical design. I don't see a demon denizen of the forest but rather a teenage vandal looking for trouble. The tree needs that white shari Icabod Crane saw on the tulip tree. Maybe the shari can connect the dots, get rid of the face and add age to the tree. The canopy needs denser twigging, even if it is chaotic to add age and mystery. I really like the tallest branch especially the acute angle near the top and would like to see that theme repeated somewhere else in the branching. For presentation purposes I'd like to see moss completely cover the soil. Otherwise it doesn't look like a forest resident but a tree in a pot. Overall to me this tree seems a bit too contrived and a little more bonsai technique would move it from a parody of a tree to a much more dramatic statement.

And a word on critics. Professional critics have a parasitic role in society, they feed off the work of others and add little value merely foisting on us what they think about a piece of work. But like the remora is to a shark, parasites can offer a service. By publicly offering their opinion of a work, they might for instance steer us from a bad investment, like going to see a bad movie. But bad is relative and I might like a movie that Gene Shalit didn't. Since we are not investing much in viewing this tree, other than some time, we don't need professional critics for that purpose. Perhaps the biggest benefit of having professional bonsai critics is that it will be a clue telling us that bonsai has arrived as an Art in the west a necessary evil that accompanies the big time.

On the other hand, I find it very interesting to learn what other bonsai artists have to say, especially in light of using that opinion to further improve a bonsai tree. And when those artists put their own work up for others to see, it places their opinion in an appropriate evaluative context. I am glad that Andy started this forum and look forward to the seeing ideas that get exchanged for the notion of bonsai as an Art has a long way to go in the west.

Author:  Andy Rutledge [ Fri Mar 04, 2005 10:43 am ]
Post subject: 

Glad to see the discussion here, ...but a note of clarification...
"I" did not start this forum or this project. That role was filled by Carl Bergstrom, Will Heath, Candy Shirey and others. I just happen to be the technical/web guy. Hope you enjoy the place, though!
Kind regards,

Author:  Will Heath [ Fri Mar 04, 2005 11:54 am ]
Post subject:  Re:

Andy Rutledge wrote:
Glad to see the discussion here, ...but a note of clarification...
"I" did not start this forum or this project. That role was filled by Carl Bergstrom, Will Heath, Candy Shirey and others. I just happen to be the technical/web guy. Hope you enjoy the place, though!
Kind regards,

While that may be true, we were just sputtering with ideas until the high octane Andy pressed the pedal on the project and dragged us to where it is now. Kicking and screaming most the way, I might add.

Andy's experience and unique outlook on things were instrumental in the "feel" of this forum, don't let his modesty fool you.

Author:  Morten Albek [ Fri Mar 04, 2005 12:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Wabi-sabi

Before I bring my opinion on, I will like to express my gratitude to this new forum, and its members, which seems to seriously seek a high level of bonsai art discussions.

Back to the point. I agree with Rob. I too find the hollows in the trunk disturbing to my vision of a natural tree, which I find is one of the finest qualities in a bonsai.

Naturalness is difficult to achieve, and in this case I find the tree far from natural. Too much is distracting my mind from seeing a natural appearance of the tree.

A good phrase in bonsai is to bring peace, harmony, beauty and simplicity into the image of the tree. In this bonsai I find some, or maybe all of this is violated. Instead of peace and harmony I find a disturbing picture.
The beauty is partly (or widely) a matter of taste, but I don?t see the beauty in this bonsai, which I normally seeks in trees represented in this specimen. Because of the artificial approach of the tree, with the much too arranged (it seems so) face that is purposed in the trunk by the hollows. And the simplicity is violated by the overall complex picture, where it also is difficult to find a resting point for the eye.

At the same time I am disturbed by the double trunk, that leads my eye trough the hole rather than finding peace and balance at a more central and balanced point. When the eye find a natural and well balanced spot to focus on immediately, it is easier to start the search for details afterwards, and find back to the main point. This is an important point, to achieve calmness and peace in a bonsai.

So what to do, if I had the choice. First of all a slight change of the planting position towards the left could make the low placed hole (at the low part of the double trunk) seem narrower, and at the same time soil and moss can cover the rest, by lifting soil up to the mid part. This might also hide the left hollow in the trunk, and these hollows can be crafted so they look more natural. Changing the planting angle a little might help too.

Also the branches need attention, and in my opinion they must be shortened and brought a little more to order. The branch structure works against the peace and harmony that I personally feel is an important part of a bonsai. This doesn?t means that bonsai can?t be dramatic or powerful, but they visually need to be in balance and poses harmony.

Another point I personally seeks to develop in my bonsais are some of the essence of the Japanese phrases Wabi and Sabi.

Wabi-sabi is very Japanese in spirit, but can for some part be adapted by us who lives in the west.

The Japanese words wabi and sabi are related to the tea ceremony, which was developed by Sen-no Rikyu more than 400 years ago.

Allthough that wabi-sabi in Japan are keywords related to the bonsai art, it is in my opinion not fore filling all the aspects from my point of view, but is a part of the expression.

Because bonsai is also a poem or a poetry. A bonsai is an aesthetic expression, which tells a story and evokes emotions. This is related to the human behind the tree, or the people who get influenced by watching the bonsai, because all art relates to a human expression. In bonsai though, this expression must be closely related to nature.

This must be carried out with some dignity and humbleness, and this is not the case when the human expression, as with the case tree discussed here, overrides the naturalness and wabi-sabi.

The term wabi-sabi suggests qualities like impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. In these principles are some underlying and diametrically opposed values to the Western counterparts, whit values deeply rooted in the Hellenic worldview, which values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection. I think though, it is possible to find a way to appreciate wabi-sabi, and express this in bonsai.

Wabi-sabi is also intuitive appreciation of transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. The understated beauty exists in a modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things. This beauty is what I personally appreciate in the Japanese bonsais, and I try to implement the spirit in my western approach to bonsai.

Author:  Mark Rockwell [ Fri Mar 04, 2005 2:49 pm ]
Post subject: 

While I agree with the classic interpretation of this tree, I can't agree with the conclusion.

I think bonsai has been emasculated a bit in the last 50 or so years, as has man's overall perception of nature. The notion that nature is about "peace and calm" has been taken to heart in the last fifty or so years, as man has moved from nature's conqueror to its "protector" to its "assassin." All of this has been at the expense of nature's "darker" side. The one that's unruly, dangerous, wild, sometimes downright unbalanced, ugly and sometimes lethal. The one that is still around, but people tend to ignore it, or rationalize it.

Bonsai has recognized that there's an ugly side to nature in the past. Styles have reflected those feelings-- horai, octopus, even Neagari. All were basically tortured, grotesque styles that sought to mimic tortured trees in nature, or just present a disturbing image. They have been filtered out in the 20th Century.

I think the "asymmetrically balanced peaceful" bonsai is great, but it's only half the story nature and man have to tell.

I also think there is now a swing back in the darker direction as we progress with bonsai in the West. "Naturalistic" bonsai has a heart of darkness, in my opinion, at least as far as it tries to stir deep primitive feelings in the viewer.

Although this tree tries a little too hard, I think it's effective. The gaping hole/mouth along with the snaky grasping branches do evoke that tree next to Hansel and Gretel's Witch's House....and it's not a happy plant ;-)

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