Monday, September 13, 2010

The Naturalistic Bonsai Style

The Naturalistic Bonsai Style -
is it art or is it crap?

by Walter Pall

see footnote 1

The naturalistic trees are some of the most misunderstood bonsai that I know of. The average bonsai enthusiast has learned from all sorts of sources what makes a good bonsai. He knows all the rules and is used to critique bonsai according to how well the rules were applied. With such mainstream attitude the naturalistic bonsai seems just raw material to most. In many cases it seems even poor raw material because the majority of trees don't lend themselves well to the 'accepted' bonsai styling rules.

Since a few years the subject of ‘naturalistic’ bonsai is discussed in bonsai circles especially on the internet. Whenever it comes up the forums are getting lively. The subject has a tendency to polarize. Well, it is in a way the antithesis to modern abstract bonsai design, but this alone is not enough to cause such a lot of disagreement. Often the discussions end in personal insults, they are reminiscent of political or religious discussions. One reason is that the concept is simply not understood by many. And the other reason is that it is indeed confused with a pseudorligion. One can either be Catholic or Jewish, but not really both; one can be either left wing or right wing, but hardly both. One can practice naturalistic bonsai style and very well in parallel traditional bonsai style though. But the bonsai crowd does not understand this yet by and large

So the bonsai establishment frowns at this development. But if, on the other hand, a person who has absolutely no background in the art of bonsai looks at these creations they are amazed. They wonder how one could find so many of these small trees which look just like the large ones in nature. They wonder how it was possible to get them into these small pots. They don't see the hand of man, they believe that the trees grew like this and were just collected an planted in containers. And this is a great compliment to the artist. That's exactly what he wants to achieve: little trees which don't show the hand of man at all. That's his art. On exhibits one can often see that the general public often has much higher appreciation of the naturalistic trees than the bonsai crowd.

What makes bonsai in the naturalistic style so different? What is going on here? What kind of style is this? What's the difference to let's say the informal upright style? Contrary to the usage in bonsai circles in general art appreciation the word 'style' means a general feeling, an overall philosophy, an overall general way of going about things, a general frame of mind of the artists etc.

If you go to an art museum you will normally find different rooms for different styles. This can be anything from "Early American" to "Impressionist" to "Dutch" to "Roman", "Baroque" or even more differentiated. The word style speaks about the general feeling. If you look at the objects that are made in a certain style you find an endless number of forms. Speaking of paintings the form can be e.g.: landscape, people in nature, people in rooms, lady standing, lady sitting, almost anything that you can think of. But all these forms can, at least theoretically, be found in all or most styles. The standing lady can well be in the Early American or Baroque or modern or any other style.

Coming back to bonsai: styles could be: classical Japanese style as taught in Japan today, classical Japanese style as taught in the West, modern bonsai style, romantic style, naturalistic style, literati style or many others. It could also be the style of Nick Lenz, of John Naka, of Masahiko Kimura or Italian style bonsai. In all these bonsai styles you would find the known forms: formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade etc. In the bonsai world the word 'style' is not used the right way if you consider the usage in the history of arts. I guess it is because bonsai was first taught by gardeners who had no formal artistic training .

I think we are on the verge to a better understanding of the art form while it is diverging into different directions at an ever increasing pace just in this moment. It is important to be able to discuss these phenomena in an intelligent way. This is why the exact words are important. And here we are trying to understand the works of those who practice naturalistic bonsai styling. And way too many think that what they are doing is not even art. There are a lot of people out there who think there is only one way to do bonsai "right" – and the naturalists certainly don't do it “right”. We have to forget the conventional bonsai world and have to look at this from a much broader angle. Really there is a great variety of ways to approach the art of bonsai. And, yes, it is an art form and the differences in styles show exactly this. If it were a craft there would be one "right" way of doing it. Many would say that the naturalists are not artists. I think the controversial nature of this work makes them artists much more than the ones who are making bonsai to please the mainstream taste. It is OK to not like what the naturalists do with bonsai. But it is still art, much more so than the overwhelming majority of bonsai offered commercially.

So how did someone come up with this style? Can we not stay with our usual bonsai styling? Why change something that it so good? I am known as proponent of the naturalistic style, but I have not really invented it. I as quite a few others have only made the observation that too many bonsai look like bonsai and not like trees would really look like. I had seen that the trend in styling is toward more and more refinement which often takes away all naturalness. I found that too many of these bonsai looked artificial, like they were made of plastic and not for real. The hand of man is clearly visible. At the same time so many bonsai look like each other because they were all styled according to one single pattern. In nature there is an infinite number of patterns for trees to grow though.

John Naka said something along the line "Do not try to make your little tree look like a bonsai, try to make your bonsai look like a little tree". That's it. Not more, not less. So how do you know what a tree looks like vs. a bonsai? Well, give up looking at bonsai for your images and look at real trees. Avoid all the stereotypes in styling that are generally taught. It is that simple. Does it take a genius to find that out? Well, one would think that everybody understands this immediately. They don't! There are more misunderstandings than you ever can imagine. You are asking for the major impediment. I think it is the way bonsai was and is taught. It is taught to make a BONSAI. The naturalistic style is the antithesis, it is about making a TREE and thus must be wrong. Some think that we are rude to John Naka. Well, one could say that what we are trying to do is exactly as the master's famous words. So possibly we are standing on John's shoulders. The most remarkable comment that I ever got was "bonsai has NOTHING to do with real trees!". Really? It is hard to believe. Well, if one sees how so many bonsai are styled, this statement can even be left as is "Painting people has NOTHING to do with real people". How about this for a statement.

What’s the difference between a real tree and a standard bonsai? Real trees are not triangular if they are not young spruce, larch or redwood. Real trees do not have all horizontal branches when they are old: the branches are usually bending downwards on conifers and upwards and then downwards on broadleaved trees. Real trees do not usually have large negative space between all branches, where 'the bird can fly through'. There may be some negative space, but usually it is more for birds to fly in rather than through. Real trees do not always have a main branch which is the lowest one. Real trees do not have a clearly defined front, they have many good sides. If there is one good side of a real tree there are usually branches from top to bottom, the tree is not open. On real trees the branches are not ordered very nicely. These are the main differences but there are more.

A traditional bonsai is ideal, it is abstract. A naturalistic bonsai is realistic, which is the opposite of abstract. But it is never totally realistic. There is always a certain degree of abstraction. But it is never going as far as so many modern bonsai which are very groomed, very much refined, very ‘licked’ and too often look almost unreal like made of plastic. They certainly look like some human being and not nature has made them. Naturalistic bonsai is the antithesis to this development which has gone a bit too far in many cases in my opinion.

Too many people think they have understood this and let nature do the styling of their tree in a pot. They think that naturalistic styling is about just letting grow and edit here and there. It is called naturalistic because it is NOT natural. The trick is NOT to leave the piece of material almost as is and let nature do the styling. This would be creating bonsai material. ‘Naturalistic’ means that the end result, the finished tree in a pot is supposed to give the feeling of an impressive natural tree that was never touched by man. It does not matter how this aim is achieved. In almost all cases this aim is achieved by very artificial means – not by nature! It should not look "artistic", "artificial", "contrived", "made", "constructed", "licked". It should look as if nature had done it. This does NOT mean that you let nature do it.
Naturalistic bonsai has nothing to do with the method, but only with the result. Clip and grow and never using wire is an old method to create bonsai. Many think that this is naturalistic bonsai styling. It is not, but it can be. A hedge is created by clip and grow method; and it can hardly be called naturalistic. Many think that it is about not using wire. Well, look at the most prominent examples of naturalistic styling. Every single branch was wired at one point. The trick really is that in the very end this is not visible. The end result looks like it grew like this by itself. Really every single thing on these trees was ‘made’, ‘created’, by the artist. All bonsai are wired heavily in the first styling phases, even non-conifers ; every single branch and branchlet usually. After a few years this must not be noticeable. Well, one could remark here that on mature traditional bonsai the very same is true. Yes, one cannot see the work of craft there, but the shape is that of a bonsai. Still some don't even have the shape of a bonsai either. Then they are naturalistic bonsai. Nobody said that these only exist in the West.

Now so far we spoke about the craft part. The artistic part comes in when we try to create shapes or forms of trees which are not in the bonsai book but they well exist in real nature. It is good practice to use the unique forms that the material has and enhance it. We do not try to cut off the edges and irregularities to come to and ideal bonsai shape. We do the contrary, we enhances the weirdness and wildness. Often we enhance parts which are considered serious flaws in orthodox bonsai but are unique and credible features of natural trees. After a few years the work is not noticeable anymore. The trees look like they were never touched by human hands, as we found them and only planted them into a container. It is hard work to get to this stage. I know there are lots of folks who think they just let nature do the job and they will get this naturalistic piece of art eventually. They will never get it. All they are doing is creating and maintaining material. They have to style it for serious eventually. "Naturalistic" is not an excuse for lazy people, it is not about untidy looking trees, it is not a shortcut. It is more difficult and takes longer than traditional styling.

So there is much more craft and art involved than what it looks like. It's a bit like father and son going to this contemporary art museum and standing in front of an abstract painting. Father: “you, my son, can do this!”. “Well, congratulations, your son must be rich!” Quite a few see a naturalistic tree and say “I can do better”. “Congratulations, you must be world famous!” Many accuse us of not working on our trees. While there sometimes may be some truth in this the art is in the work not being visible. So who is right? The bonsai connoisseur who thinks this all at best is bonsai material or the person uncorrupted by bonsai wisdom who thinks these trees came from the mountain like that? I think neither is right. If bonsai were a craft with well defined rules number one were right. Number two has caught more of the essence of bonsai as an art but is naive and therefore not in a good position to judge the value. So is the truth somewhere in between. No, I don't think so. Naturalistic trees are what they are. Take them or leave them. I say 'trees' and not 'bonsai'. It is almost like using the word 'bonsai' as a derogative term. If something looks like a bonsai it is not good, it looks as much as a wild tree as a poodle looks like a wolf. And we are all for the wolf.

So how can we get closer to appreciate what we lunatics are creating? I think that bonsai like all art is an exercise in abstraction. The tricky thing with bonsai is that one uses a living tree as material for the art. It will always be natural in some way. There is a long straight line with different trees which go from very natural to very abstract. On the very left is an absolute natural tree as found in the forest. On the very right is the ultimate bonsai abstraction. The left one looks like a weedy tree and the right one like made of plastic, a caricature of a tree. Mainstream bonsai taste wants the trees to stay pretty close to the right end of the line. Most bonsai don't really look like trees, but like bonsai. Most naturalistic trees are quite far to the left of this line. So they are very far away from mainstream bonsai taste. Well, mainstream of this time. If one looks at what was state of the art in Japan before WWII one can find quite a few bonsai which look like contemporary naturalistic ones. And a great number of Chinese penjing would seem familiar too. So one can say that the naturalistic style is going back to the roots. It is a reaction to the the over-abstracting of modern bonsai. So can his work be called 'retro'?- Well, it depends what exactly you mean. My answer is no, it is not a retro, it is a genuine way of seeing trees and we are not trying to create something in an old style at all.

It is most ironic that in 'real art' abstract paintings or sculptures are often frowned upon by the general public and in bonsai mainstream highly abstract and realistic trees are questioned. So it's just the other way round. The bonsai fundamentalist were quite strong a few years ago still, but now there are fewer of them. In some places they even seem to be a minority already. So the day will come when an average bonsai enthusiast will appreciate the naturalistic style as just another way of practicing the art of bonsai. In fact by now (which is summer of 2010) there must be tens of thousands around the world who actively practice naturalistic bonsai styling.

It seems that the naturalists do not always make it easy for folks to appreciate their art. This may be because they are used to be offended and are in the defensive mode most of the time. Bonsai taste is a developed taste that people have learned. It is not, as many would think, a natural taste at all. The overwhelming majority has learned from and through Japanese sources. So the mainstream bonsai taste is a Japanese taste. Now people want to see what they expect to see and not something entirely contrary. Thus the majority will find naturalistic bonsai poor or not even bonsai at all, because they are so different from their expectations.

Naturalistic is not an excuse for lazy people, it is not about untidy looking trees, it is not a shortcut. I think it is at least as much if not more labor intensive as traditional styling. It is not about going back to the days when trees were not groomed as much as today, when bonsai trees looked wild and untamed. One often hears that the naturalistic bonsai styling should be 'forbidden' because it leads too many into presenting something that is poorly designed or not designed at all and call it 'art'. Well, one should also forbid traditional bonsai styling because it too often leads folks who are rigidly following rules to create another cookie cutter bonsai to think they are avant garde artists.

Naturalistic styling is just another option of how to style bonsai. It is perfectly OK to not like the whole idea or the end result presented here. It is an honorable opinion to think that the aim was not reached in many examples. But does this mean that the aim was wrong? It is perfectly OK to say that one has understood the direction but nevertheless decide to continue to work along the well known traditional paths. This is only a suggestion how one can also treat the art of bonsai. I am not telling you which way you HAVE to go, that you only have to work naturalistically from now on. It is also not necessary to change completely and radically. One can make bonsai just a bit more natural from now on. One can also make a decision by what the material tells you. Contrary to what many expect I do a lot of rather traditional and also modern trees, because the material tells me that this is what it wants to be.

Anyway, I think this naturalistic styling has added another option of general style which makes the art more interesting and creates a lot more variety. It can be more fun than doing another look-alike bonsai again. Why can the bonsai world not be more tolerant? Well, it can. Let's try from now on.

1) When asked to write a foreword for the book "Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees:
The Life and Works of Dan Robinson - Bonsai Pioneer" by Will Hiltz, I had to think hard how to explain what Dan Robinson is doing in bonsai, which is not too far away form what I am doing myself. This article is partially adapted from this foreword. The book is available here: