Wednesday, September 8, 2010

WP: Tradition in bonsai

I just found this. I must have written it in 2002.

Walter Pall

I have an ambiguous relationship with bonsai tradition.

First, it is the foundation on which we all build. It is where bonsai as we see it today comes from. To many it is bonsai; there just is no other way to do bonsai for them. We owe it to tradition that we can see bonsai as fine art which is spread all over the world now.

I believe that every bonsai enthusiast must learn as much about the bonsai tradition as possible, it is indispensable. I think what is called "classical bonsai" is by and large what shows our tradition. There are traditional, classical forms (usually called styles) which are designed in the classical style. It is a style that works toward building the ideal tree; an abstraction that shows the ultimate tree. Every bonsai designer must learn how to style trees in the traditional forms with the classical spirit.

Besides the styling of trees there is a whole bundle of other traditions in bonsai. It is the pots and the way of potting, the display in a tokonoma, with stand, accent object and scroll and a lot more. In the spirit of Asian art it is absolutely acceptable and expected that others try to copy the well known masterpieces and all aspects of the tradition. Every divergence from this path is questionable.

The other side of the coin is that this is just not my tradition. It is an Asian tradition, mainly a Japanese tradition. While I have the highest respect for it, I wonder whether bonsai in my part of the world is about rigidly following a foreign tradition and, if it is, whether it is then worth my time. Well, I don't really wonder, I just refuse to accept this. I believe that the Asian tradition can be used as a great starting point, and then we go from there. As long as westerners try to copy Japanese masterpieces, bonsai is not a universal art form at all. Copying is not considered art in the western tradition. An artist must be creative and that goes beyond copying. We must find our own ways, which might become tradition eventually. One starting point would be to question the underlying philosophy of traditional bonsai; of creating and ideal tree. I am well aware that this opens the door for all sorts of nonsense and atrocious creations. I am also well aware that this notion is not helpful for the average bonsai enthusiast who looks for help and reassurance. But it opens the door at least and enables us to create art and not just copies. One must, however, always keep the deep respect for one's teachers.

10 comments:

Arzivenko said...

After 11 pages at IBC forum, this article is a good conclusion of the subject.

Anonymous said...

It's a pity you haven't posted it in 2002, then.

Walter Pall said...

I have posted it in 2002. It was in some site which does not exist anymore. Andy Rutlekge has collected some of the ols stuff and shows it in his Bonsai Journal: http://bonsaijournal.com/

The pity is that in these days most folks who read this now were not on the net or did not do bonsai yet.

Anonymous said...

walter, you are spot on, it is what i always felt too, from the first book i ever read, to years later, with some own experiences. For example, even the use of the japanese terminology (chokkan, nebari...) bij us westerners i find quite ridiculous. What is the need for that? Does it help us in understanding to create our own bonsai? I have a bit of dislike of some (known) bonsai teachers who teach like the are professors, and use the japanse words, but in fact really dont understand what is the essence of bonsai. I hope to see more artists who work like you, and who also have the guts to say it like it is meant to be said. To say it otherwise, personally for me the only correct way to copy in bonsai is to copy from trees in nature, finding a natural look that goes with the type of tree; adding some creative aspect neccesary because of the smaller dimensions of bonsai.

Sebastijan Sandev said...

Well, I wonder, if Japanese were only copying pun sai or penjing when it came from China, we would now have Japanese bonsai with long exposed roots like octopus, silly letterlike trunks with your name inscribed with movement of the trunk, beautiful pots with cranes flying to the sunset and little sheeps with an old man with a beard sitting under the tree in all major showes like Kokufu or similar :)
So, nither were Japanese copying Chinese style neither would be of any good for westerners to just blindly copy Japanese. There is a lot to learn from Japanese and from Chinese but...we would be very stupid, limited and inspirationless (I don't know if the word is correct) to do just that! Just to copy! We have a Canon machines for that.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that a very important thing is to "live" Bonsai. To understand a philosophy that stands behind and not just to learn a tecnique. For that Japanese Bonsai is something we will always have to look to, even when "our Bonsai" is going different directions.

Pawel Piekarczyk said...

Anonymus said: " To say it otherwise, personally for me the only correct way to copy in bonsai is to copy from trees in nature, finding a natural look that goes with the type of tree"
Exactly that is the essence of Bonsai. In Japan or China nature looks much different, exotic for us. In Europe we have also beautiful examples of old trees which can be inspiration. But my question is: why does the most of European bonsai people copy Japanese bonsai and not Japanese nature? Is that still art, I don't think so..
Pawel Piekarczyk

Anonymous said...

Silly letterlike trunks? Like this one, you mean? http://www.bonsaischalen.info/uploads/images/dateien-baum/kim009.jpg

Ana V said...

Two details caught my eye - each perhaps interesting in its own right, aside the main argument [i.e. tradition built by divergence rather then apriory expectations, right?]

- one is that 'ideal tree': a western thing as far as I remember. At least, the Asian ones are 'ideal' in a different way then the common European sense of ~ 'complete prototype'. The discussion relates to the distinct approaches to categorization, I think... incidentally, a current topic these days. [*]


- and the copy or not to copy part: I remained with a sense that the commandment to fall within tradition is delivered with the underlying expectation that it ought to fail [I am not doing the subject justice here by a long shot!] 'right'. Effectively, this comes to accepting additions that compete with accumulated wisdom sucessfully, without the incentive of apropriation. Understandable; at least, I keep hearing the same concerns in all too western circles where the continuation of legal or intellectual 'traditions' is considered. The distinction between the right to copy and the right to interpret is anything but subtle and an all too current hot potato with more under its skin then either 'commencement' or 'continuity' capture, I suspect. Big words ike those tend to be awfully limited by context...


[Re. " important thing is to 'live' Bonsai]

It would seem that way; at least, I am unsure what place this art reserves to spectators. This is the one thing I find very non-European about it.

Of course, European folklore had the same feature of 'participation art' but it is difficult to find any traces of this form in living memory or practice...

The circumstances of the beginning of 'high art' in either side of the world illustrate this distinction, I find. Particularly the attempt to westernize art theory in the Meiji period provides a lived-in snapshot. There are just a couple of titles in English, as a subject of art theory - this appears to be exciting new territory [relatively speaking]. Unfortunately, their authors do not venture much on the European aftermath of this exchange, understandably... I hope this followup is somewhere in the making; an account of 'exported tradition' would be awfully incomplete without mention of an art form that doesn't do well without a supporting practice [Hic!. as opposed to spectatorship]



Sure thing: reading history takes allot less time then making [it, or] trees grow in pots...



___

* The other sense I can think of for the phrase 'ideal tree' - the ubiquitous icon of an axis mundi with branches and roots, is indo-european, different story entirely.

Ana V said...

Two details caught my eye - each perhaps interesting in its own right, aside the main argument [i.e. tradition built by divergence rather then apriory expectations, right?]

- one is that 'ideal tree': a western thing as far as I remember. At least, the Asian ones are 'ideal' in a different way then the common European sense of ~ 'complete prototype'. The discussion relates to the distinct approaches to categorization, I think... incidentally, a current topic these days. [*]


- and the copy or not to copy part: I remained with a sense that the commandment to fall within tradition is delivered with the underlying expectation that it ought to fail [I am not doing the subject justice here by a long shot!] 'right'. Effectively, this comes to accepting additions that compete with accumulated wisdom sucessfully, without the incentive of apropriation. Understandable; at least, I keep hearing the same concerns in all too western circles where the continuation of legal or intellectual 'traditions' is considered. The distinction between the right to copy and the right to interpret is anything but subtle and an all too current hot potato with more under its skin then either 'commencement' or 'continuity' capture, I suspect. Big words ike those tend to be awfully limited by context...


[Re. " important thing is to 'live' Bonsai]

It would seem that way; at least, I am unsure what place this art reserves to spectators. This is the one thing I find very non-European about it.

Of course, European folklore had the same feature of 'participation art' but it is difficult to find any traces of this form in living memory or practice...

The circumstances of the beginning of 'high art' in either side of the world illustrate this distinction, I find. Particularly the attempt to westernize art theory in the Meiji period provides a lived-in snapshot. There are just a couple of titles in English, as a subject of art theory - this appears to be exciting new territory [relatively speaking]. Unfortunately, their authors do not venture much on the European aftermath of this exchange, understandably... I hope this followup is somewhere in the making; an account of 'exported tradition' would be awfully incomplete without mention of an art form that doesn't do well without a supporting practice [Hic!. as opposed to spectatorship]



Sure thing: reading history takes allot less time then making [it, or] trees grow in pots...



___

* The other sense I can think of for the phrase 'ideal tree' - the ubiquitous icon of an axis mundi with branches and roots, is indo-european, different story entirely.