Friday, October 30, 2015

Dear Arthur, Dear Walter #4

Hello Walter,

Thank you for taking the time to post your most recent reply, which has generated at least some commentary. As I write this, you are in Portland, OR being one of the judges at the Artisan's Cup event, and I wonder how that is going. I look forward to hearing your impressions of the show and all that goes with it.

To get myself ready to write this post, I just spent some time rereading large passages of your "Styles and Forms" essay that I linked to in my previous open letter to you. That is an exhaustive treatment of the subject and it is exhausting to read, too, but I am glad you wrote it. I am grateful someone has taken the time to think so deeply about bonsai as an art, and to outline the ways bonsai criticism must parallel criticism in other forms of art as regards the awareness and understanding of stylistic evolution. I am grateful because this is important work, and even more so because I would never want to be the person to have to do it. I find I am not so different from a great many bonsai practitioners in that I would rather spend my time shaping little trees than thinking about why I do it the way I do, or worse, talking or writing about it. Yet for me there is no avoiding either of those things. They fall squarely within the parameters of my job description. A big part of that job involves interacting with the general public, or the "innocent" public, as you once put it. I never think of the public as particularly innocent, but they are full of questions, and these questions get directed at me and I am obliged to answer them. Answering these questions can be an annoyance, mostly because of the repetitive nature of them, but they can also be instructive. They tell me what the non-bonsai part of the population (which is the overwhelming majority of people) thinks about bonsai, what about it captures their interest, what strikes them as strange, what stereotyped ideas or curious misconceptions they harbor. My job also brings me into contact with a great many bonsai hobbyists, and here too the interaction is instructive. I get asked many questions by these people as well, mostly of the "how-to" variety but occasionally they are of a more challenging nature, as in "why do you do this?" and "why don't you do that?" And once again I get insight as to how this audience perceives bonsai and how much they are thinking about it, and how much of their conception of bonsai is based on unthinking acceptance of things they have been taught. All this having to deal with people, whether the general public or the bonsai-aware, forces me to think, talk and sometimes write about bonsai.

Shortly after our on-line correspondence commenced I had an interesting conversation with someone who told me they enjoyed reading it but wondered if maybe I was not drifting away from the stated topic of this thread, that being "American Bonsai at the NC Arboretum". I told them I was not drifting away at all. I hope, through this correspondence with you, to bring that topic even more sharply into focus. So my questions to you about style, naturalistic and otherwise, have all been aimed toward a certain objective, and that is to help make it better understood what is happening with bonsai at the North Carolina Arboretum. I think this is worthwhile because our bonsai efforts at the Arboretum have been outstandingly successful, and this despite (or is it because of?) the fact that we are presenting bonsai in a markedly different way than is customarily done. This difference is intentional, not accidental. It has grown out of my awareness that certain aspects of bonsai as it is typically practiced in this country do not connect in any personally meaningful way with the great majority of people in this country. I speak of my own country, the US, because it is the only one I am first-hand familiar with and it is the one in which I have to operate. Still, I see pictures on the Internet of bonsai shows from around the world and it leads me to think conditions are similar elsewhere in the West.

It is not such a big deal if an individual decides he or she wants to do bonsai in an unconventional way. In my fairly limited travels I have met a few people who have found their own direction with bonsai after many years, but usually these people work in relative isolation. They have little or no use for the greater bonsai community and it often regards them the same way. It is an altogether different thing if a public collection decides to be unconventional. In that instance being isolated or disconnected is not an option; the purpose of being public is to have visibility and to engage with as wide an audience as possible. Way back on page 1 of this thread, when I first introduced it almost 3 years ago, you were one of the first people to check in on it, offering your thoughts on what you observed when you visited our bonsai garden in 2011. What you had to say then was so astute that I will not bother trying to approximate it here, but will instead provide this direct link to it and encourage those who are interested to go and read it again: http://ibonsaiclub.forumotion.com/t12772-american-bonsai-at-the-nc-arboretum#133822 As you noted, we aim bonsai at our primary audience - the general public. And as I answered you then, at the same time as we are aiming at, and connecting with, the general public, I am also intending that the bonsai community take notice as well. That is why I write this thread and that is why I travel and talk to different groups and present at symposiums, shows and conventions. I am trying to put information out where the bonsai community can find it. 

I have asked you about different styles in bonsai, with a particular interest in the Naturalistic style. You have provided a good overview, and even though you are giving it only a simplified, stripped down, cursory treatment I think you are already over the heads of a good many people. I have spent a lot of time thinking over this business of bonsai styles and find it is not so easy a topic to dissect, but for myself I have decided this: 

The Classical Style, as viewed from the standard Western perspective, refers to bonsai made in Japan and reflecting the prevailing Japanese aesthetic, from a period dating back at least 100 years and perhaps more, but reaching its zenith in the late-middle of the 20th century. It is the stuff one would find in the Nippon Bonsai Association publication "Classic Bonsai of Japan", or at the major shows in Japan prior to advent of Mr. Kimura and those who followed in his wake. For many practitioners it represents the Holy Grail of bonsai perfection.

The Neo-classical Style is all the bonsai made in imitation of the true Classical bonsai. By following a prescribed methodology people attempt to emulate the Classical look, and some get very close to it while others produce results that border on grotesque parody. The overwhelming majority of bonsai I see in this country, and those from bonsai shows in many Western countries, as we often see represented by photos posted on this forum, fall into the Neo-classical or Western Classical style.

The Modern Style appears to have sprung largely from the loins of Mr. Kimura, and his apprentices cum disciples have carried it throughout the world. It is typified by power, precision, overt technical prowess and as much impressive deadwood as possible. It is the stuff that generates the most excitement in bonsai circles these days, the stuff that bonsai rock star dreams are made of.

The Naturalistic Style reverts back to the example of trees in nature as the prime source for inspiration. For most people in the West the reference for this style is typically one of the naturalistic schools of Penjing from China, although there is a fair amount of unrecognized naturalism in the handling of deciduous material in Japanese bonsai. Although true naturalistic bonsai exist in the US they are comparatively rare and often not appreciated.

Again, this is a completely subjective take on the matter, the best reasoning of a person who admits he has no interest in being an academician about it. If anyone wants to set me straight about it they are welcome to do so. But based on this way of looking at it I have arrived at the following conclusions:



  • It is not possible for me or any of the other people on this forum to produce actual Classical bonsai. 


  • The best those inclined toward Classical bonsai can hope to do is Neo-classical bonsai.


  • Neo-classical bonsai has no roots in Western culture, therefore pursuing it entails trying to assimilate a foreign culture, or at least cultivate some deep understanding of it.


  • A comparatively minuscule number of Western people have the desire to completely assimilate a foreign culture, which is very difficult if not impossible to do.


  • A larger but still comparatively minuscule number of Western people have the desire to cultivate a deep understanding of a foreign culture, but they often do a poor job of it and end up being awkward. 


  • Modern bonsai requires old plant material with impressive trunks, typically collected, which is not available to many people due to the rigors of collecting it or the cost of buying it.


  • Modern bonsai also requires a degree of technical skill most bonsai hobbyists do not possess.


Obviously, all of the thoughts above are in regards to actually doing bonsai, not owning them. A person with enough money can purchase an excellent specimen of any style, and can hire a professional to keep it looking right, too. I have no opinion about this one way or another. I am not in a position to spend a lot of money on bonsai and neither is my employer. For me, bonsai is about doing, about being expressive, creating beauty and promoting good health.

There is more to come about this, but enough for now. If you have any thoughts you would like to share I would of course be keen to hear them.


Dear Arthur,


Arthur Joura wrote:
Thank you for taking the time to post your most recent reply, which has generated at least some commentary. As I write this, you are in Portland, OR being one of the judges at the Artisan's Cup event, and I wonder how 
hat is going. I look forward to hearing your impressions of the show and all that goes with it.

It's now about four weeks ago and the impressions have settled. I said this immediately right there and still think so: this event was a major milestone in American bonsai history in my opinion. America has arrived at the Modern Bonsai Style. The overwhelming majority of the first twenty or so trees were in that style and certainly the ones upfront. Although from the choice of judges it was not clearly to be expected the taste has changed as far as I can see. Very impressive massive trees with lots of deadwood , very individualistic, very loud are now in. Quiet is nice to have in between bout quiet cannot really win against loud noways. This is a paradigm shift. Bonsai has arrived as an art form as the exhibit took place in the Portland Art Museum and the whole setup was very unique and very dramatic to show trees artistically. Very successful though, regardless of what many on the internet think because the pictures were so lousy. This was not for picture taking it was for being deeply impressed. 
This paradigm shift will not be welcomed by many. It does not value what many believe of believed to be the essence of bonsai, the quietness, Zen feeling, working on a piece from the start over decades and loving it. All this is more for accent now than it is the main show. Broadleaved trees have very little chance now may they be as good as they can possibly be. I think it is essential to give the quiet trees and the broadleaved trees a podium. Extra awards would be a solution rather than a extra show devoted to them.
For about twenty years I was thinking that when comparing the state of bonsai art in Europe and in the USA Europe had a strong lead. This is not so anymore. They are now at par is my observation. While Europe is still growing in quality steadily America is doing this in a steeper curve since a couple of years. So I foresee the USA will be leading against Europe and, since material is crucial and America has the best material, it will lead the world in the not so distant future.
Coming back to American Bonsai at the NC Arboretum it is clear that the 'new' style of the Artisan Cup is definitely not the style at the arboretum. Such is life and I can tell you a lot about this. It is well known that I am also not following the mainstream style in general. This I do as you do out of conviction and with success. But we will not win an award against modern bonsai. So what! But , interesting to note, I had the honor of being one of the judges in Portland. And it is partially through my judgment that the modern trees won. 
Well, all this is just my personal opinion and one should take it for that and to more.

Arthur Joura wrote:
I have asked you about different styles in bonsai, with a particular interest in the Naturalistic style. You have provided a good overview, and even though you are giving it only a simplified, stripped down, cursory treatment I think you are already over the heads of a good many people. I have spent a lot of time thinking over this business of bonsai styles and find it is not so easy a topic to dissect, but for myself I have decided this: 

The Classical Style, as viewed from the standard Western perspective, refers to bonsai made in Japan and reflecting the prevailing Japanese aesthetic, from a period dating back at least 100 years and perhaps more, but reaching its zenith in the late-middle of the 20th century. It is the stuff one would find in the Nippon Bonsai Association publication "Classic Bonsai of Japan", or at the major shows in Japan prior to advent of Mr. Kimura and those who followed in his wake. For many practitioners it represents the Holy Grail of bonsai perfection.

The Neo-classical Style is all the bonsai made in imitation of the true Classical bonsai. By following a prescribed methodology people attempt to emulate the Classical look, and some get very close to it while others produce results that border on grotesque parody. The overwhelming majority of bonsai I see in this country, and those from bonsai shows in many Western countries, as we often see represented by photos posted on this forum, fall into the Neo-classical or Western Classical style.

The Modern Style appears to have sprung largely from the loins of Mr. Kimura, and his apprentices cum disciples have carried it throughout the world. It is typified by power, precision, overt technical prowess and as much impressive deadwood as possible. It is the stuff that generates the most excitement in bonsai circles these days, the stuff that bonsai rock star dreams are made of.

The Naturalistic Style reverts back to the example of trees in nature as the prime source for inspiration. For most people in the West the reference for this style is typically one of the naturalistic schools of Penjing from China, although there is a fair amount of unrecognized naturalism in the handling of deciduous material in Japanese bonsai. Although true naturalistic bonsai exist in the US they are comparatively rare and often not appreciated.

So far I agree to your assessment of bonsai styles.


[quote="Arthur Joura"]
It is not possible for me or any of the other people on this forum to produce actual Classical bonsai. [url=http://www.servimg.com/view/18135461/858]

May I add that it also not possible for any other folks including Japanese. The time of classical bonsai is over. Whatever one does now is a retro. Some retros can come very close to the original style, but they are still a retro. 

Arthur Joura wrote:The best those inclined toward Classical bonsai can hope to do is Neo-classical bonsai.

Correct, you can also call it a retro.

Arthur Joura wrote:Neo-classical bonsai has no roots in Western culture, therefore pursuing it entails trying to assimilate a foreign culture, or at least cultivate some deep understanding of it.

True, but then bonsai in general has no roots in our culture one could say. But still many succeed to have a deep understanding and many create great masterpieces without these roots. Does one have to be born in Salzburg, Austria to do classical music or understand it very well?

Arthur Joura wrote:A comparatively minuscule number of Western people have the desire to completely assimilate a foreign culture, which is very difficult if not impossible to do.

Agreed. And most fail. While a Japanese would never openly admit it I happen to know that they make jokes about this. For me bonsai is not a Japanese or Asian art form anymore. It has become universal. And there is absolutely no need to creep into another culture to do it well.

Arthur Joura wrote:A larger but still comparatively minuscule number of Western people have the desire to cultivate a deep understanding of a foreign culture, but they often do a poor job of it and end up being awkward.
Sorry to say – yes. And even if they did a great job what difference would it make. 

Arthur Joura wrote:Modern bonsai requires old plant material with impressive trunks, typically collected, which is not available to many people due to the rigors of collecting it or the cost of buying it.

Mostly true.

Arthur Joura wrote:Modern bonsai also requires a degree of technical skill most bonsai hobbyists do not possess.
Mostly true.


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 Re: American Bonsai at the NC Arboretum

Post  Walter Pall on Tue Oct 27, 2015 4:42 am
After my sabbatical I continue what we have started. Some requested to see a clear description of the Naturalistic Bonsai Style with examples. I warn folks that the examples are not always easy to understand. It takes a lot of experience in viewing trees and sorting styles to see the difference. And then everything is more or less ambiguous. There is no black and white here. Evey example has some features of another style too. While I certainly could have erred when posting examples I ask folks to lean back and consider that they may not have the viewing experience to see what is meant. Some think this is superfluous and may not have the will to see - that's fine with me. I don't write for those anyway.

So here is the Naturalistic Bonsai Style:

Pro: 

Natural
lots of soul 
Becoming popular
Neither ideal or unique
Back to the roots
sometimes 'impossible' material can be used
Impressive holes and scars on broadleaved trees
Even deadwood very natural

Con:

Untidy
License for crap
Controversial
Chaotic
Misunderstood





















1 comment:

JP said...

Obrigado por partilhar.
JP