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PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2006 5:46 pm 
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I'm about to toss a cat in amongst the pigeons, I fear.
For 12 months my books have been stored away, offsite. I finally managed to unpack them and put them back onto shelves on Dec 29.
One of the first things I did, after that, was to reread Yuji Yoshimura's excellent publication, "The Japanese Art Of Miniature Trees And Landscapes", first printed in 1957.
Apart from the fact that many of the observations made by Yuji now seem a little quaint (especially about chlorine, ants and earthworms) there is a lot of exceptionally good information to be had from revisiting the book.
Back to my point: It struck me as highly significant that there 20 colour plates and almost 120 B&W plates depicting "traditional", even famous, bonsai. Very few of them show trees that would be considered "quality" trees within the understanding of the term quality bonsai today.
In fact, if anything, they look remarkably like slightly unkempt versions of the "Natural Style" currently taught and promoted by Walter Pall and a few other teachers.
Trunk and taper were less important then, it seems to me, than it is now. Foliage placement was a fair bit less contrived. Shape was more intuitive than literal. Pot sizes, in comparison to the tree, were larger. (Though that is still the case in many sections of the bonsai community, if not in the more recent trends in North America). In all, the trees were less stylised, the grooming less aggressive, the art more rustic.

Is "Natural Style" the new "Traditional"? Perhaps it should be said that all wheels turn back to their original starting point... some may be some distance from where they began but they all return to the point from which they started.


Last edited by Hector Johnson on Mon Jan 02, 2006 7:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2006 6:15 pm 
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Hector,
"Back to my point: It struck me as highly significant that there 20 colour plates and almost 120 B&W plates depicting "traditional", even famous, bonsai. Very few of them show trees that would be considered "quality" trees within the understanding of the term quality bonsai today."
Yes, bonsai as a developed art form is a recent evolution of our endeavor. For the vast majority of bonsai's history, it was pretty much a matter of bringing elements of nature to the home for enjoyment.
Is "Natural Style" the new "Traditional"? Perhaps it should be said that all wheels turn back to their original starting point... some may be some distance from where they began but they all return to the point from which they started.
Ack! No. "Natural Style" is what photorealism without compositional concerns is to painting. This is my opinion, of course. I adore what Walter can do with bonsai, but disagree with a portion of what he does do with bonsai. ;-) He's a formidable artist, but I'll oppose the tennents of "Natural Style" until the cows come home - as art without the interpretive component is not my bag and I wholly disagree with it.
The old, unrefined efforts of the past and today's unrefined artistic efforts cannot be compared equally and do not relate to one another. The former were not attempts at art and the latter are supposed to be (as I understand it). This is a continuum, not a circle.
Kind regards,
Andy


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2006 7:31 pm 
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Ack! No. "Natural Style" is what photorealism without compositional concerns is to painting. This is my opinion, of course. I adore what Walter can do with bonsai, but disagree with a portion of what he does do with bonsai. ;-) He's a formidable artist, but I'll oppose the tennents [sic]of "Natural Style" until the cows come home - as art without the interpretive component is not my bag and I wholly disagree with it.
I see. You're saying that the experience of bonsai is a subjective, rather than objective, one? That's likely true. Everyone perceives it slightly differently. This debate is not so much whether there has been a morphological development in the generally understood definition (I can readily point to numerous examples that would reinforce the view there has been) but rather what we would be doing if "traditional" bonsai did not exist (It did, but the understanding means different things to different people).
The old, unrefined efforts of the past and today's unrefined artistic efforts cannot be compared equally and do not relate to one another. The former were not attempts at art and the latter are supposed to be (as I understand it). This is a continuum, not a circle.
Here we diverge, Andy. The old bonsai were just as much, if not more, art than are the unrefined examples of today. They were shown, probably more regularly than now, in the Tokonoma of homes, as examples of art, to mark the passing of the seasons and for the enjoyment of guests and family. (See p 168 0f Yoshimura).
A circle is no less a continuum than is a line or a M?bius figure. Unless you have an identifiable point on a circle it is a continuum, and a very economical one. My contention is that Walter may have, wittingly or otherwise, drifted back to the "traditions" of bonsai, as it was before the intensive primping and preening that came to define "traditional" bonsai in the 1970s and 1980s.
Maybe Walter could clear up whether that shift was intentional, or not?
Thank you for this discussion, Andy. Far more satisfying than explaining to some newbie why $5 black glazed pots are not suitable for the Black Pine seedling they've just bought.


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2006 9:25 pm 
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Hector,
Quote:
I see. You're saying that the experience of bonsai is a subjective, rather than objective, one? That's likely true. Everyone perceives it slightly differently.

Well yes, sure. However, I was less than direct in my observation before. True, that is my opinion, but I'll argue very clearly that art without an interpretive component is not art. Period. So, much to Walter's chagrin, I have to say as I have before that "natural style" bonsai are unartistic, deficient, half-works of bonsai. My opinion, certainly, but I also hold with this as a fact as it relates to artistry. "Natural style" bonsai are not works of art - or they are poor art.
And I'm sorry for this element of the discussion hijacking Walter's already interesting thread theme.
As to the historical record of bonsai being displayed in home tokonoma, surely this is true, but it does not describe or otherwise indicate attempts at artistry. These were typically cultural affectations - much like my mother-in-law's alcove for her statuette of the Virgin Mary in her own home. This example is no less spiritual and cultural than were bonsai displays in home alcoves. And I'm not referencing the purely religious elements here, merely the spiritual/cultural.
But yes, you got me with the whole circle/continuum thing. My careless mistake and poor example. ;-) You may indeed be correct as to Walter's purpose or motivations for his own stylistic forays. I wouldn't know. My point is that, on the whole, widespread evidence of poorly constructed bonsai are not necessarily evidence of returning to "our roots." They're most often evidence of inept artistry, I think.
And that's another thing we can't forget about the evolution of bonsai from naturalistic plants in pots to the rather exacting and manicured contemporary motifs. A significant part of that change was due, as I mentioned earlier, to advances in technique and horticulture (as well as the switch to art-driven cultivation). I am completely on board with you if what you suggest is that the similarity of many of today's efforts and those of yesteryear is due to a modern lack of artistic understanding or concern. If not, I'd have to disagree.
Kind regards,
Andy


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 02, 2006 11:20 pm 
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It seems we are agreed in practice, if not completely in principle.
There perhaps needs to be a tighter definition of "Natural Style", for us to agree on what constitutes that style. I certainly don't see it as wilful neglect of the tree after it has been potted... though that almost appears to be what happens with some trees that are being passed off as "natural style bonsai".
I would venture that it is far more difficult to get a tree to look natural than it is to make something that is obviously "bonsai" to the casual observer. The first problem to overcome is the natural tendency of young material to grow upwards, rather than outwards.
However, that is the subject for another, far more detailed, discussion.


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 06, 2006 11:44 pm 
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Would it be prudent to say that maybe the term 'natural style,' was borne as time went on, and has only confused things of late.
Maybe in the beginning the rules were less restrictive than people make them out to be today.
Maybe the first person to quote the term 'natural style' saw a tree that acually abided strongly to the rules, but omitted enough of the right rules in the right way to look more natural, and less rules bound, and that may be why the Japanese came up with the rules for in the first place, to define many different aspects of the 'natural style' without acually naming it the 'natural style.'
Those are just my thoughts, i love what artists like Walter do, i'm not trying to bring it down, those are just some thoughts i've come up with while thinking long on the subject.
crabs><>


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 07, 2006 4:41 am 
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Personally, I think the recent trend towards overly preened trees has been the result of wire being more available, and professional stylists looking after trees for wealthy owners.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri Jan 13, 2006 1:22 pm 
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Hector Johnson wrote:
Personally, I think the recent trend towards overly preened trees has been the result of wire being more available, and professional stylists looking after trees for wealthy owners.

Hector, I like your phrase, "overly preened trees". It does seem to me that sometimes bonsai are styled to the point that they go from art to artifice.
Does good art require the artist to know when to stop? When enough is enough?
Mike


Last edited by Mike Page on Sat Jan 14, 2006 6:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 14, 2006 3:47 am 
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Yes, Mike. To me, they look like the horticultural equivalent of breast implants and cosmetic surgery. The package looks fantastic but there's something deeply disquieting about it... the smiles don't involve the right muscles, the bounce is wrong, the teeth glow in the dark...
So it is with bonsai that have been styled within an inch of their lives. They look like they've been through a CGI program, which gives them an ersatz feel, for mine.


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 21, 2006 1:06 pm 
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Very interesting thread with cogent and instructive arguments. Sometimes a phrase will catch my eye and seem to distill the argument very well.
Here is one such phrase by Attila Soos. "The paranoia of conformity."
Very telling, it applies to so many areas of human endeavor, and the practice of bonsai is no exception.
In my mind, Attila's phrase ties in very well with Hector Johnson's phrase, "the recent trend towards overly preened trees."
So, does "the paranoia of conformity" contribute to "the recent trend to overly preened trees"?
Just thought I'd ask.
Mike


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 21, 2006 5:12 pm 
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I would say that "the paranoia of conformity" contributes more to the cookie-cutter styles of most trees we see in photographs (Usually those shown as "great" examples). That includes the bulk of Japanese trees, where almost all White Pines are styled to look like the usual gallery of old, specimen trees that seem to dominate the bonsai experience of that species in Japan.
The"preening" thing, as I meant it, is probably more about the willingness of competition judges to award points for aggressive neatness, despite the fact it flies in the face of the concept of Wabi, if we can appropriately define that word (It doesn't exist in the Daijiten, so the definition is largely subjective).
I am sometimes dismayed at the mechanistic approach to display of some trees, as seen in competition. There seems to be little room left for nature to be nature, in those trees.
Insofar as that level of neatness seems to have become the standard for exhibition then yes, there is a direct correllation to be made between "paranoia" and "preening".
I am unsettled that there seems to have been a conscious effort made to abrogate the Shibu (bittersweet) evocation of emotion that these trees would otherwise possess. Reversing it can be as simple as allowing a few flower petals to fall on the soil or the stand, as if a small child has been told to "clean up under the tree, guests are coming" and has missed a couple.
(I should state that this is my opinion, given what I'm about to say) That aspect of bonsai is being smothered by overzealous exhibitors and anal-retentive judges, who are allowing their limitations to influence their judgment. I'm sure that would upset many of them but I've thought about this for a long time. It's happening, regardless of the inherent "wrongness" that I, (and others, I'm sure), see in it.
I have neither the willingness nor the desire to primp and preen my trees to that level. I do, however, appreciate the skill and patience required to get there. I'm just lamenting the inability of the owners/stylists to relax a little, once they get to that point. The trees lack "soul", for want of a Western word.


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PostPosted: Sun Jan 22, 2006 12:16 pm 
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Hector Johnson wrote:
The"preening" thing, as I meant it, is probably more about the willingness of competition judges to award points for aggressive neatness, despite the fact it flies in the face of the concept of Wabi

I like the term "aggressive neatness".
Since this this forum has the arts as its main focus, I think it's worth mentioning the term "kitsch" as the antipode of art. Agressive neatness, or the concern to please others, when done at the expense of spontaneity, leads inevitably to kitch.


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 Post subject: Re: What if 'traditional' bonsai style did not exist?
PostPosted: Sun Jan 29, 2006 1:51 pm 
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Walter Pall wrote:
A few observations have made me to conclude that there is no such thing as THE traditional bonsai style. Traditional is used as synonym to classical very often.
Let?s look at ?classical? bonsai as they were shown over times. Where can we do this? Well, it can be done by looking at issues of the Kokufu-ten books over the years. If you ever have a chance to look at one from before the war it will strike you that the majority of trees shown in there don?t look at all like what most see as ?classical? bonsai today. In fact a majority would be considered inferior today. Then one moves on to editions after the war. One finds that in the late fifties and mid-sixties the bonsai exhibited often look like what is seen as ?Classical Traditional Bonsai Style? today by quite a lot of people in the West (but not in Japan!). Going on in time the bonsai have a different feeling again. And in editions of the past ten years they look very much different again.
What most would call THE classical trees is really the trees of the late seventies to end-eighties.
Compared to other art forms this is very recent for being called ?classical?.
But for some it is already dated.
Look at what people create who were trained in Japan very recently. Does this look like what we have learned to be ?traditional? bonsai style? Most of the times it does not. I am not even speaking of the youngsters who have studied with Kimura. And I am not speaking of those who try to be very contemporary.
I am speaking of those who insist that what they have learned and what they are practising is ?traditional? bonsai.
I have had the pleasure to interview Kimura in public on stage two years ago. One question went into the direction ?what is so different in your style than what we have learned to call traditional? Kimura insisted that what he was and is doing is ?traditional?. He insisted that he is in the classical line and all there is to it is may be more attention to detail, to refinement. Well, I don?t think so at all.
But what is ?traditional, classical? bonsai if it comes in so many radically different appearances? And it even dares to change, to progress. Traditional, classical means something stable to most. Something to look back and up to, to admire forever. How come what used to be called top classical masterpieces is changing all the time. It is not supposed to. Or is it?
How come that there is definitely a different look between what is created in the West (outside of direct Japanese influence) and called ?traditional? and what is coming out of Japan nowadays and also called ?traditional??
I think we can see quite a few more or less radically different styles under the heading ?traditional?. I at least see clearly two:
The Western Traditional Style and the Japanese Traditional Style.
If this comes as surprise to you, you are in good company. It surprises me too.

I think something that can help clear this argument is to go at it from the wrong direction. Very often you can tell the value of a coin by turning it over. Think about this one: How did we get the "Traditional Style"? Think about how you think this might have happened. Did someone one day sit down and right down all these so called rules and then imposed them on an entire culture of bonsai growers? In other words, how do you see the evolution of bonsai before there were any rules? What event caused the rules to float to the top so to speak?.


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2006 9:51 pm 
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It was the pleasure we take in seeing things a certain way, Vance.
It's much like the evolution of painting, however. Sometimes there are "periods", through which all artists in a community must pass, if they are to be regarded seriously.
I believe a similar thing is happening with bonsai, perhaps because it is easier to disseminate information and styles via the internet than it has ever been in the past.


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 03, 2006 10:21 am 
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Returning to Walter's original question, What if we did not have traditional styles? The simple answer would be if we did not have them we would have to invent them. The rules or styles would be defined by what the majority of growers consider art and how it is they practiced it at the time.
When people care about something they feel compelled to define it by some sort of standards where by it is understandable in an artistic sense as it is in bonsai. As the story goes Newton observed an apple falling from a tree. Instead of taking that event at face value he asked why. From this observation his theory of gravitation was developed and accepted as law for a long time. Then along comes Einstein with his theories of curved space and blew Newton's theory out of the water.
I know that sounds like comparing apples and oranges, but it really is the same thing because what we are dealing with is human nature. It is now and has always been human nature to define the world around our selves in terms that we can understand. As understanding increases sometimes those definitions will change, often drastically. The same applies to art and the items or mediums involved in the practice. What is axiomatic, was once theory, what is axiomatic may become theory and both may be come outdated.
Granted there is not much in the way of theory involved in art but there is much that is axiomatic that would seem to demand adherence. But here again as interests change and those changes become main stream then what was once on the perimeters of the art become the new boundaries. At this point human nature will demand definition. It is not possible to have one without the other. The least that can be said about them is they will be attempts to explain what is, and what is not art, and the argument will continue. The process will again make the great circle and all of this will repeat itself.


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