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Art and Kimura

Bonsai, Art and Kimura

by Gunter Lind

The history of bonsai can roughly be divided into three phases – not as a strictly delimited chronological sequence, but rather as different approaches that had an influence on the way of shaping bonsai. In a slightly exaggerated way they could be characterized as follows:

  1. Bonsai as tradition, the religious/mythical approach,

  2. Bonsai as design, the craft approach,

  3. Bonsai as art, the artistic approach.

1. The origins of bonsai are said to be religious, mythic. The predecessors of the art might have been containers used in the chinese death cult that were shaped like one of the islands of the blessed, a mountain steeply protruding from the sea, with many grottos and caves. The next stage were the first paradise landscapes in a pot: mountain-shaped stones planted with moss, tiny trees and other plants. The imagination of the islands of the blessed combined with other mythic thoughts gave a symbolic meaning to the landscape or tree in the pot, well beyond the aesthetic aspect. This approach to bonsai prevailed for a long time. Even at the end of the 19th century most bonsai were not bought or given to others primarily for aesthetic reasons but as a lucky charm for different occasions like new year’s day, a wedding or simply to express one's wishes of long life and prosperity.  Of course this did not prevent an aesthetically appealing design, but it was not the primary intention. The new year Ume had its value, even if it was not designed perfectly, the most important thing was that would blossom at new year.

2. In the 18th century a bonsai trade developed in Japan, at first as a part of the gardens and flowers industry. In the 19th century there were already specialised bonsai nurserys which produced the mainly requested species, pine and ume (flowering apricot). Their merchandise were no pieces of art but nursery stock produced according to certain standards. These were the humble roots of the Japanese craft bonsai which later went on its triumphal progression around the world.

It is a typical feature of the craft approach that the repertoire of shapes was standardized and there were rules for their design. To a certain degree, this might apply to all kinds of craft. For the decorative arts of Japan however, including the art of gardens, they are especially typical. The regular implementation of works according to the ideals of a certain school is highly appreciated. This implies a certain degree of perfectionism. It is not coincidental that Japan has achieved extraordinary accomplishments in the field of decorative art.

The rules also pertain to the expressive features of a certain bonsai style. For example, a classic pine was supposed to have a powerfully masculine and compact expression, and a Ume should have a sparse, informal ramification on which the flowers look like scattered snow flakes. The example of the ume tells us that rules and design ideals are subject to fashions. The modern ume is much more compact and has adopted elements of the classic pine design. Such developments however are long-term trends. They leave almost no creative freedom to the designer. Moreover, neither the formal nor the expressive aspect in the craft tradition is particularly suited to raise a bonsai above the masses of just 'correct' trees. For a designer who would like to stand out from the crowd, the only way to do this is via perfection. On bonsai, this perfection doesn't only show in the perfect application of the rules, but in the fact that this doesn't show in the finished piece. The perfect craft bonsai, in its formal perfection and high degree of refinement, looks both extremely artificial and at the same time perfectly natural, if this word is taken in its second meaning: it looks self-confident, as if it couldn't have been different.

3. Bonsai as an art? Perhaps there have been always been bonsai which were intended as pieces of art by their creators. Since the invention of the "single tree bonsai" in the Song-era, chinese littérateurs-officials have created bonsai and they thought of themselves as artists. However their idea of art was influenced by calligraphy and brush painting. There the most important criterion for the originality of the artistic achievements was the individual, distinctive use of the brush, while the subject and its expressive content was often just taken from the tradition.There was no wish for innovation, no change of style which is so central to the European concept of art. It is not so easy to transfer these artistic concepts from calligraphy to bonsai. How should the individuality of the designer be expressed, if shape and expression was determined by tradition? Perhaps the literati didn't regard their bonsai as pieces of art after all, but just as decoration for their garden pavilions or studios?

Be this as it may, it seems that bonsai designers only recently started to explicitly claim the status of artists and their works to be pieces of art. My claim is that this attitude didn't originate from the Japanese bonsai tradition alone, but that it could only arise with the adoption of Western art concepts. A few years ago there was an exhibition with the title "Art is Innovation" - this is characteristic of the newer Western art. Already Karl Friedrich Schinkel, a German architect of the early 19th century, wrote: "Everywhere you're only truly alive where you create something new. Whenever you're sure of something, this is a suspicious thing ..." This attitude is alien to traditional Asian art, where creativity means more a virtuous play with traditions than creating something new.

  Masahiko Kimura

This new definiton of bonsai as art is linked to the name of Masahiko Kimura. He demonstrated with his works that bonsai really can be art, and he clearly articulated that he thinks of himself as an artist in the sense just described. He often expresses his pride to have created bonsai that don't have a model in history, and he definitely claims the primacy of creativity over tradition. Especially in those cases where Kimura's creations met criticism, it was never questioned that they really were something novel and thus indirectly affirmed his claims. This criticism was aimed at innovation as such, its goal was to preserve the craft traditions.

Juniperus chinensis  Height: 78 cm (30 1/2 in)

What is novel about Kimura’s trees? People would probably agree that the dominating deadwood is the most striking feature. This is shaped very freely. Kimura himself uses the word sculpturing. The above picture shows a famous tree of Kimura. It is no exaggeration to say that this tree has had a great influence on the development of modern artistic bonsai. The shape of the trunk is highly complex, rich in details and movement, at the same time powerful and compact. Although Kimura prefers raw material which already has interesting deadwood, if this is not the case, he can also create a sculpture which bears no resemblance with the original trunk. In this way, a plain cylindric trunk that was cut off at the top can be worked into a finely wrought sculpture.

In contrast to the interesting, sublte, complex deadwood, the living crown of the bonsai often seems to be less important. In many cases it is small, has a simple compact shape and is also designed very traditionally. It stands in strong contrast to the complex shapes of the deadwood.

On a closer look however you can see that the simplicity of the crown is just appearance. It doesn't have the simple branch structure you might expect, but has been created by imaginative bending of only one or a few branches. In order to be able to create such shapes that were not originally present the material, Kimura has developed new, drastic design techniques, especially for junipers. The live vein might be separated from the trunk and both parts treated completely independently. In extreme cases, the trunk is shortened by chopping out a piece of trunk just above the soil level. The remaining live vein is then coiled up and hidden beneath the surface of the soil.

Linked to this claim of freedom of expression and unlimited creativity is a dismissal of the traditional axiom that nature should be the example for bonsai creation. Even if nature's example had been interpreted in many different ways, even if a tree sometimes was more a symbol than a representation of nature, a tree still remained a tree. With Kimura's work you sometimes have the impression that the bonsai isn't primarily a tree, but an occasion for creating art. The tree doesn't depict, symbolize, interpret - it becomes a sculpture, a modern work of art, and in fact it doesn't matter any more if it's a tree. Consistent with this is the dismissal of the classic rules of design - they had been formulated for trees and might not apply to sculptures at all. The trees don't have a classic, uniform nebari, it is often impossible to decide if there are bar branches, and crossing parts become a decorative element in the deadwood.

  Crossing parts are a decorative element in the deadwood.

  The tree - an occasion for creating art?

It is no contradiction that Kimura has often stressed that he aims to create natural bonsai. His concept of naturalness is that of the Asian art tradition and not related to Western Naturalism. It is not about appearances, but about the nature of things. A bonsai is not supposed to look like a tree, to represent or symbolize it; it should give us emotions that are similar to the ones created by a tree in nature. It should express the greatness, wildness, the dynamic and dramatic aspects of nature.

This is not the only aspect showing that Kimura is deeply rooted in Asian artistic traditions. He is not the eternal rebel but is in many aspects committed to tradition, even to the classic craft oriented bonsai approach. Not only has he created excellent classically shaped bonsai and traditional landscapes influenced by Chinese examples. Even his deadwood creations which seem so new and different have classic roots. One could view them as examples of the driftwood style which was never very popular in Japan, but more so in China. However, there is a qualitative difference. A tree in the driftwood style appears do be decorated with deadwood, and it does have models in nature, such as at extreme locations where trees are battered by the wind and other impacts of the weather. Picture 11 shows a juniper that Kimura shaped in the driftwood style. The live vein can hardly be seen from the front side, the elegant deadwood trunk shines brightly white. The tree is of classic harmony. The trunk is still a trunk and no living sculpture. But the development to that point happens without a breach of tradition. Many things are already contained in the traditional driftwood style. But still this development results in a radical change of the bonsai’s expression. The classically styled harmonic trees which of course can possess deadwood as part of the design are joined by dynamic, expressive trees which are anti-classic.

  Driftwood style

Trees clinging to a rock

Meanwhile Kimura has been copied a lot, not only in Japan, but also and especially in Europe. This doesn't only mean that deadwood has become fashionable. Even more important has been a change in the perception of bonsai, a change from bonsai as a craft to bonsai as an art. Bonsai has become more dynamic and more expressive. The encounter with deadwood sculptures has changed our perception of bonsai in general.

Francois Jeker (“Bonsai Aesthetics, published in 2000) tried to elaborate on aesthetic criteria for modern bonsai creation. His subject is not primarily the style of Kimura but the aesthetic advancements of the classic style in general. Some of his criteria are the same that governed the classic bonsai style, such as asymmetry, the use of negative space or the three-dimensionality of the resulting image. For us, however, it is more interesting to look at criteria that were already valid in the classic style but are now re-interpreted in a characteristic way. This applies especially to the concept of unity. It is very similar to Andy Rutledge's principle of “design integrity”. Jeker however, when having the choice between harmony and originality, clearly leans towards the latter. For him, only an original bonsai is beautiful: beauty is rebellious, impertinent and subversive. Avoiding everything inappropriate is not a design goal any more. On the contrary: contrast and rhythm become important criteria of design. Balance is now explicitly understood as a dynamic balance. Classic tranquility and harmony are dismissed as static and less expressive. Instead, the goals are dynamics, movement, expressiveness and dramatic effects, and these qualities are primarily manifested in the treatment of deadwood. Let me use the example of a European bonsai designer to explain this modern expressive style. Image 13 shows a driftwood style bonsai by Walter Pall. When comparing it to Kimura’s tree (image 11) that is shaped in the same style, there are obvious differences. Kimura’s tree is a classic tree, well-balanced, beautiful. Pall’s tree is expressive and dramatic. For a viewer used to classic shapes it really is a bit "impertinent".

  Tree by Walter Pall  (Juniperus scopulorum), height: 60 cm (23 1/2 in)

Notwithstanding my admiration for Kimura and his followers, I would like to close with some skeptical remarks. The development towards more and more artistic bonsai has led to an increasing gap between bonsai hobbyists and professionals. Under the craft paradigm the hobbyist could emulate the professional’s work and arrive at fine creations, even if the very last professional touches were missing. Under the artistic paradigm, this will be a rare exception. It takes a longterm training of the artistic eye and perfection of the relevant design techniques. It also means that the professional will not be a professional horticulturist, but a professional artist. This profession requires a market for art, and so far such a market exist only in Japan if at all. In Europe there are virtually no collectors of artistic bonsai who let professionals care for them and prepare them for exhibitions. This creates the paradox situation that some bonsai artists live on workshops for bonsai hobbyists and thereby nurture the illusion that art and hobby were of the same kind.

Prof. Dr. Gunter Lind

On the 9th of April 2007, Prof. Dr. Lind died after a severe illness. After his retirement, he had dedicated most of his time to the exploration of bonsai history. It took a very competent bonsai and art connoisseur to disclose a field of knowledge that is so completely unknown in the west.

Many of his articles were published by the magazine BONSAI ART and in the German BONSAI FACHFORUM internet forum. Unfortunately many unfinished articles will be lost for us.

It is a great honor to be able to include one of his articles on this web site.

My special thanks to Mrs Lind.

Copyright: Gerlind Lind

Special thanks also to BONSAI ART for kindly providing the photographs of Kimura and his trees, and to Walter Pall for providing a photograph.


Translation: Heike van Gunst

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