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 Post subject: Critique: Walter Pall's Norway Spruce
PostPosted: Sun May 07, 2006 1:21 am 
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This thread is for discussing Will Heath's critique of Walter Pall's Norway Spruce.
http://www.artofbonsai.org/critiques/walter.php


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PostPosted: Mon May 08, 2006 2:28 am 
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Thank you Will for the critique.

Attached find a picture that was made in 1988 when this tree still belonged to Werner Trachsel from Switzerland. Regarding bonsai in 'development' one can see that even around 30 years in captivity does not make a finished bonsai - at least with a spruce. This tree was wired fully three times in the past 20 years and still is not finished.

Anyway, I have shown this on a German convention a few years ago. They have a very 'accurate' judging system with lots of items and valuation with numbers to get the fairest judgment to the third digit.

The tree did not make it to the best thirty in show. Not that this would bother me. I definitely did not need another award in Germany. But it was most interesting to look at the judging sheet.

The tree got 'very good' overall. Then it got serious minus-points in the following items:
-twin trunk starts too high
-twin trunk almost s high as main trunk
-lowest branches too low, not at one third of height
-layers between branches not well defined, negative space not good
-nebari could be better
-slightly untidy looking

I think it is remarkable how judging is done. In this case a sheet which clearly was made with the RULES in mind was taken and there was not much leeway for the judges. A naturalistic tree must fail under these circumstances.

Does it matter? Not really. It only throws a light upon what happens in 'serious' bonsai circles. How would an upcoming artist cope with this? How about judging systems that try to petrify the neoclassical status quo?
Walter


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PostPosted: Tue May 09, 2006 8:33 am 
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Great looking bonsai Walter.

Of all the "rules" the high split of a twin-trunk is probably the one that I feel is really out of place. The vast majority of natural trees split higher than the rule allows. I can understand the lack of quality in the slingshot trunks, but just like this bonsai emulates, a high split can be a thing of beauty and elegance.

I would have to think that in shows such as those that Walter takes part in, the quality of the bonsai are so good that it takes RULES to make decisions on which ones are the very best. Technicalities, if you will, instead of great visual impact, make up the "winners".

I could care less if bonsai win awards as long as they speak to the viewer. I hear this bonsai.... loud and clear.

John


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PostPosted: Tue May 09, 2006 2:05 pm 
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There is nothing wrong with the rule mentioned here: the one stating that if there is a secondary trunk, that should start at the ground level. The purpose of that guideline is to ensure that a tree has only one trunk line.

The reason for this is that a single trunk line has no distractions and the flow is uninterrupted. Keeping it simple and uncluttered, is the key objective of this rule.

If the other trunk starts at the ground level, that is considered a second tree, so its trunk line is somewhat independent from the first one, and thus less chance for negative interference.

This is a general guideline, such as the one saying that a simple, minimalistic branch structure is much more preferred in bonsai than an overly complex one. Examples from Zen art, such as rock gardens, bunjin style, and tea ceremony are consistent with this minimalist taste.
So, again, this rule is just saying "keep it simple", or "trees with multiple trunks can become clumsy and confusing".

Having said that, nature is full of complexities, such as auxiliary trunks. In order to represent it successfully, this poses a little bit of challenge to the artist. There is more room to go wrong. But it doesn't mean that it can't be done. And it certainly doesn't mean that the artist has to follow a rule just for the rule's sake.

This tree works very well for me. Walter used the auxiliary trunk to create an interesting composition, without being disruptive.

The comment that the tree looks good because it follows the growth pattern of many trees in nature is not the best one, in my opinion. Similarly, I wouldn't say that a painting is good because it looks life-like (a cheap camera can do that better).

It sounds good, and I want my trees to follow nature as much as possible. But there could be just as many examples of bad looking bonsai that follow the trees in nature. That's because nature has no taste, it has good looking trees as well as really awkward-looking ones.


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PostPosted: Wed May 10, 2006 7:55 am 
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Attila,
Why must a twin-trunk have only ONE trunkline? The two trunks add to the depth perception of this bonsai. Walter has added perceived age with the drooping branches - no small feat on this species - and probably has as many branches and foliage (fullness) as could be considered on such a bonsai of this size and structure. The depth is amazing, and it shows in a PHOTOGRAPH. That is a rarity.

Personally, I believe you and I differ on the "natural" aspects of bonsai and the use of same as a technique. This particular bonsai could be categorized as a twin-trunk or some may say an informal since the split is so high (although it is more of a formal without the subordinate trunk/branch). Doesn't matter to me as long as it speaks. It does that. I looked at the bonsai for several minutes before I tried to categorize it in my mind. That is always a good sign of good artistic quality. I "see" the beauty, and mere textbook, clinically-sterile, summations are trumped by the natural beauty of the work. That is why I still think "rules" are guidelines, and once again, the QUALITY of the bonsai in these shows must have some system to award points. RULES are what that system must rely on. Not saying it happened in the last showing of this bonsai, but I have seen winners that won on technical accuracy rather than beauty. That is where I feel we must deviate from the rules, and the best bonsai artists do.

Warmest regards,
John


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PostPosted: Wed May 10, 2006 2:33 pm 
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I haven't heard of a formal definition of twin-trunk, but it's all right with me. Obviously, a twin-trunk will have two trunk lines, by definition.

I am not sure how we differ on this tree, it seems like you and I both like it, so we must be on the same page.

But going back to the rule requiring that if there is a second trunk, it must start at the ground level, this rule wants to prevent things like the slingshot formation, where the eye doesn't know which trunk line to follow. Of course, rules have no sense of subtleties and artistic ingenuity, and that's why an artist always has the freedom to create something different.


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PostPosted: Wed May 10, 2006 2:38 pm 
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I haven't heard of a formal definition of twin-trunk, but it's all right with me. Obviously, a twin-trunk will have two trunk lines, by definition.

I am not sure how we differ on this tree, it seems like you and I both like it, so we must be on the same page.

But going back to the rule requiring that if there is a second trunk, it must start at the ground level, this rule wants to prevent things like the slingshot formation, where the eye doesn't know which trunk line to follow. Of course, rules have no sense of subtleties and artistic ingenuity, and that's why an artist always has the freedom to create something different.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu May 11, 2006 8:02 am 
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Attila,
We agree that we like the tree, but we differ on the rule about twin-trunks and the need for the split to be at ground level. I PREFER that in most cases, but a high split on an otherwise expertly styled bonsai is not something I summarily dismiss because it violated the "rule". That is what I'm expounding on.
John


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Thu May 11, 2006 11:13 am 
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Note: I edited this post, after I double-checked the source of my information. (attila)
John Dixon wrote:
but a high split on an otherwise expertly styled bonsai is not something I summarily dismiss because it violated the "rule".

Me neither. I completely agree with you on this one as well.

In fact, yesterday, as I was reading Masakuni's new book The Secret Techniques Of Bonsai (while working out on an elliptical gym machine), I was pleasantly surprised to see a Japanese apricot in the Split trunk style (Sabamiki). The trunk split was quite high, even higher than Walter's tree.

Now, this is the important part: this is different from the twin trunk. The twin trunk (Sokan) has to start at ground level; the split trunk (Sabamiki) usually starts much higher.

So, the rule about the split having to start close to the ground applies to the twin trunk, but not to the split trunk. According to this, our Spruce doesn't break the rules applicable for split trunk.

One note about the Split trunk form: usually it displays signs of a natural disaster that forced the tree to grow a second trunk, and as such, there is deadwood and jin involved, alongside with one of the trunks being withered and distressed. But not always. The Japanese apricot in the book has two trunks that are healthy and vigorous, with no signs of any accident.

I guess, if you search long enough in Japanese books, eventually you can find every form and shape that you want, and they will also have a name for it. Not every form (or style) is equally popular, but nevertheless, it is there.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri May 12, 2006 9:35 am 
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Attila,
That's a great inclusion in the discussion. It is amazing how many less known sub-categories there are for styling. While I don't disagree with the publication you mentioned, I don't think split-trunk - sabamiki - is readily acknowledged as a real form, except among the advanced students of bonsai. To me, I keep it simple. When two trunks are apparent, and the subordinate is at least 50% the length of the dominant trunk, I see it as a twin trunk. This includes the well-known mother/daughter moniker. I guess if we really need specifics, split-trunk would be a sub-category form, of twin-trunk style. Semantics though are only good for discussion, the actual execution of the technique is what excites me.

As always Attila, I enjoy both your posts and mannerisms. It goes without saying I also love Walter's work.

Best regards,
John


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 Post subject: .....
PostPosted: Tue May 16, 2006 4:06 pm 
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Let me preface this by stating that I have a deep respect for Herr Pall and find his work to be a major inspiration for both my bonsai practice as well as my paintings. This specific tree, however, leaves me flat. I don't think that its faults lie in any violation of the traditional 'rules' of bonsai, but in more basic aesthetic principles. The details of the tree are near perfect as far as I can tell: the trunk and branch structures are well formed and consistent, the bark is textured well and fits what seems to be the image of a wild, old mountain conifer (I wish that I were currently cabable of such technical mastery of bonsai). However, while the details are splendid, the devil is not in the the details. The overall outline of the tree is flat and almost exactly symmetrical. In addition, the tree is planted pretty much dead-center in the pot. Both of these choices work against the image of a dramatic, wild tree. The "before" image posted by Herr Pall, while much less refined and finished, seems to present a much more consistent image, due to its sparseness and asymmetry. With only a few relatively minor cuts and a slight shift in potted postition, the current bonsai could quickly move into a class with several other of Pall's amazing vertically-styled spruces.

By the way, I happen to very much enjoy secondary trunks (or vertical branches, same thing) that start well above the soil line.

---Jonathan Espalin
www.jonathanespalin.com
jvespalin@yahoo.com


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 Post subject: Re: .....
PostPosted: Tue May 16, 2006 6:21 pm 
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Jonathan Espalin wrote:
The overall outline of the tree is flat and almost exactly symmetrical. In addition, the tree is planted pretty much dead-center in the pot. Both of these choices work against the image of a dramatic, wild tree. The "before" image posted by Herr Pall, while much less refined and finished, seems to present a much more consistent image, due to its sparseness and asymmetry. With only a few relatively minor cuts and a slight shift in potted postition, the current bonsai could quickly move into a class with several other of Pall's amazing vertically-styled spruces.

Hi Jonathan,
I enjoyed looking at your works on the linked website. What intriqued me, was the repetitiveness of the big picture, with some changes in the details. I guess, it shows your intense interest in the theme presented.

Reading your statement made me think how complex modern art can be, or as some call it, conceptual art. Very interesting way of looking the man-nature relationship.

Anyway, as you mentioned, symmetry (or rather: uniformity) is what bothers you with Walter's tree. You probably mean to say that less uniformity leads to more character. I agree with that.

That's the dillemma with creating a bonsai: one can never please everybody. If too sparse and with a peculiar shape, people with a doctrinal approach to bonsai will call it unkempt and sloppy, lacking balance. When the artist tries to "tame" the tree, with attention to grooming and an overall balance and harmony, others accuse him of taking the wildness away.


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 Post subject: Judging by scheme...
PostPosted: Thu May 18, 2006 4:28 am 
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Walter: I think it is remarkable how judging is done. In this case a sheet which clearly was made with the RULES in mind was taken and there was not much leeway for the judges. A naturalistic tree must fail under these circumstances.

I am fully on the same line as you Walter, regarding how bonsai are judged. I fight a little fight here in Denmark too, being part of the judges committee in the national association.

It is extremely difficult to move people away from being strict by the rules, and observe instead.

I admit that the schemes used for judging is a good learning tool for beginners, helping to put focus on details of a tree, but it does not qualify when selecting the best bonsai.

Selecting the best bonsai is also a matter of personal taste and aesthetic views, and therefore I think it often is better to let a demonstrator or selected individual known for her or his achievements, personally select the bonsai.

It will make it that person's choice that year. Like Mr. Iwasaki choosing for Gingko last time. It will not always fall in every ones taste, but it will at least not try to set the selection upon a pedestal as being fairly and evenly judged.

How will you select the best three and pot combination, with the use of a scheme? The winner might be the most spectacular combination, but this will not be judged based on a scheme. It is a matter of aesthetic appreciation and the feeling of the interaction of the elements, not always possible or necessary to put into words or a score.

Personal selections from a respected artist is therefore often more preferable.

Walter would properly select other trees than me, and so on. We all appreciate different aesthetics and so it should be.

This year at our 25th jubilee, we change it a bit after my constant pressure (they got tired of me I think), and the best tree is selected by the visiting demonstrators. The local judges, including me, will make the selection of some other prizes, but this time without the scheme. Progress I believe.

Best regards
Morten Albek


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat Jul 15, 2006 12:05 pm 
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Here are two pictues as of middle of July 2006. The tree has two almost equally good fronts.


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 18, 2006 8:57 am 
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I agree with Jonathan that this tree is too symmetrical and the planting location amplifies it. Of course Walter is presenting a twist on a formal upright which is ok, but a little boring. If this were my tree, I would remove (or leave a little jin) the lowest branch on the larger trunk, plant with a slight angle to the left and pot it slightly to the right. To me it would make the tree much more interesting.

Some trees look contrived with a twin trunk starting up high, this one does not.
Mark


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