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Prof. Gunter Lind

And when it has arrived,
that day,
it is like nothing;
and all dreams are like a scent, a music.


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.

One article of this series was particularly fascinating for a pot lover like me. It shows details of old Japanese woodblock prints. The bonsai shown here are all planted into pots that were in fashion during the 18th and 19th century. It is a great honor for the “” website to have the permission to publish this article.

I would like to express my gratitude to Mrs Lind, and to the publishers of BONSAI ART for the permission to publish this article here.


Copyright: Gerlind Lind


Diversity of Species? Diversity of Forms?

by Gunter Lind

The overwhelming majority of bonsai images from the 18th and 19th century (I would guess more than 90%)  are limited to the three classic species that are mentioned in the Hachi-no-ki [Translator's note: "The Potted Trees", a Noh play from the beginning of the 15th century]: Pine (probably mostly Pinus parviflora), Japanese flowering apricot (Ume) and cherry trees. Let me start with some remarks on the design of the cherry trees. They are much more infrequent than the other species mentioned, so all statements about design principles must be taken with a grain of salt. You can see some examples in the images 1 to 4. 

Image 1 Utagawa Kunisada, 1853



Image 2: Utagawa Kunisada, 1786-1865

A bonsai dealer watering a cherry tree. On the shelf in the background one can see younger plants in small pots.



Image 3: Utagawa Kunisada, 1840-1880



Image 4: Utagawa Sadahide, 1861


The design of the cherry trees on the Hachi-no-ki pictures by Toyokuni I and Kunisada has some similarity to that of the pine trees next to them. One could speak of a "pine shape": A strong trunk with some changes in direction, and branches that more or less horizontally depart from it. The dark pine needles are replaced by the pink cherry flowers. The two cherry trees by Kunisada (Image 1 and 2) could be classified as "informal broom" style: An almost spherical crown sitting on a short trunk, its branch structure almost completely hidden by the blossoms. An opulent array of flowers was obviously most desirable. The tree by Yoshitora (Image 3) has features of both styles. We may assume that the style of a cherry tree was not as limited as those of the pine or the Ume. The main focus were the flowers, and the chosen shapes were the most obvious ones. Only the typical Ume style does not occur - it would probably not fit the desired rich array of flowers.

In bonsai literature you can sometimes find the statement that several species other than the three "classic" ones were already popular for bonsai styling in the 18th and 19th century. Usually mentioned are azalea, camellias, and maples. The assumption is that flowering bonsai had been popular for some time, and then there was a trend towards trees with leaves of interesting shapes or colours. This is however not really reflected in the pictorial sources available to me. There is no single image of an azalea or camellia bonsai. Almost all bonsai that don't belong to the three classic species are flowering or fruiting trees. Deciduous trees without flowers or fruits are very rare.



Image 5: Utagawa Toyokuni, 1813


Image 5 shows one of these exceptions. The door-to-door salesman apparently carries on his rack a red-leafed maple, an unknown deciduous tree and a flowering tree. But this image also shows us a possible solution for the contradiction between the written and the pictorial sources: The plants don't really look like bonsai, but rather like regular potted plants. Azaleas, camellias, maples and other species were popular as garden plants at that time. People also used to place these plants in small patios where it was too dark for cultivating flowering plants permanently in the ground. So these plants were potted up, into the same pots that were also used for bonsai. This decoration was usually changed according to the seasons. Obviously these potted plants were not styled like bonsai, at least not elaborately. Once they had stopped flowering, they were replaced by others. Another argument in favour of this interpretation is the fact that some of the sources that are referenced by the bonsai literature are in fact dealing with garden plants instead. 



Image 6: Utagawa Kunisada, (1786-1865)



Image 7: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1880



Image 8: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1880



Image 9: Utagawa Yoshitora (1840-1880)

Of course this doesn't mean that these species were not also cultivated as bonsai, and there are written sources that confirm this. There were already bonsai enthusiasts back then. But there was only a small number of them, and they were not an important economical factor until the end of the 19th century. So it is understandable that their preferences aren't reflected in the existing woodcut prints. This however also means that we don't know anything about the styling of bonsai that don't belong to the classic species. The images 6 to 9 show some examples for bonsai of non-conventional species. They are all from the second half of the 19th century: A fruiting bonsai (maybe an apple tree), a flowering bonsai (maybe a paeony; it is debatable whether this is a bonsai or just a potted plant with an interesting trunk), a deciduous bonsai and another unusual species, possibly a palm tree. It should be added that in southern China a much larger array of species was cultivated, mostly tropical trees that aren't hardy in central Japan.

For the bonsai styles, the situation is similar. Of the 20-odd styles that are described in the Japanese literature, let alone the much larger number of styles in China, only a few can be found in the pictorial sources. The already mentioned standard styles for pines, Ume and cherry trees are the most common ones.

There is another misconception that persists in bonsai literature without being backed by pictorial sources, which is the idea that bonsai in bizarre, excessive, if not monstrous styles were hugely popular and even predominant in the 19th century. These styles are especially the "Octopus" or Horai shapes, i.e. bonsai with artfully - or artificially - contorted branches or stems. Such images are however very rare.

Referring to the image of a bonsai nursery by Torii Kiyoharu, Deborah Koreshoff has pointed out before that there is a strange difference between the pictorial and the textual sources. Elsewhere she hints at a possible explanation for the overestimation of of these bizarre styles for the Japanese bonsai tradition: These shapes were those that caught the most attention of the foreign, especially Western, visitors and were therefore considered very characteristic. And when bonsai became a Japanese "brand" and nurseries started to export trees, it was trees with these styles that were selected the most.

This is demonstrated by the Paris World Fair in 1878, which sported the first larger bonsai exhibition in Europe. In an article about this exhibition (published in the English journal "The Garden",  24th of August 1878, shown in Bonsai Art vol. 68), two of six images show an Octopus style and three the exposed root style. For the latter, particularly extreme specimens were selected. It can be assumed that these examples weren't really representative for the state of bonsai styling in Japan, but rather for what the Japanese thought was in accordance with Western taste.

Surely there were enthusiasts who admired such shapes also in Japan. Had it been just for the export, it wouldn't have been economical to produce them in large numbers. We should also keep in mind that these woodblock prints only represent a small part of Japanese reality. They show the life of upper-class people living in towns. One can hardly learn from them about life on the countryside, or the life of the general public. Perhaps it was these people who possessed bonsai from nursery mass production. The woodblock prints do however show that such bizarre shapes were not typical for the Japanese taste during the Edo period. 



Image 10: Kiyonaga Hitsu,1822



Image 11: Totoya Hokkei, 1836

We also shouldn't entirely dismiss such shapes that diverge from the natural habitus of the trees. Deborah Koreshoff also stresses this point. To me, the Octopus pines in the images 10 and 11 are very interesting trees that have been designed by consequently following an artistic plan. And it is really hard to find examples for a root-exposed style in the woodblock prints that are as schematic and unattractive as those from the Paris World Fair.

In Hitsu's pine, the transition between the roots and the trunk is excellent. The left, extending branch gives it the appearance of leaning over a river that has washed away the soil around the roots. Hokkei's deciduous tree is a combination of Octopus and exposed root style. The exposed roots are not very pronounced and almost resemble a broad base. The branches are styled in bizarre twists, almost like a corkscrew hazel, but still they don't look too extreme since the rest of the bonsai is styled in a rather traditional fashion.

With extravagant shapes like these it is of course more dangerous to be off the mark than with a bonsai that is designed following a rigid scheme. Since the gardeners of these times probably weren't too artistically inclined, one can imagine that some of these designs were falling flat. But the woodblock masters apparently were able to distinguish such failures from well-designed trees.



Image 12: Anonymous, 1892

Bijutsu Bonsai Zu, Trees from an Exhibition in 1892



Image 13: Watanabe Nobukazu, ca. 1895

From a tryptich Occupations of Ladies


Image 14: Toyohara Chikanobu, 1887

It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the number of styles in Japanese bonsai increased and the standard styles lost their predominance. This was a consequence of the growing influence of Chinese models during the Meiji epoch. The images 12 to 14 show some examples for this: A pine in the cascading style, an Ume in the weeping willow style and a pine in the naturalistic style of the Lignan school. The postcard motive of an anonymous artist (image 15) shows that this orientation on Chinese models really contributed to raising artistic standards. The arrangement of a bonsai (a semi-cascade pine), a suiseki and an ikebana is titled "Eternal Spring". 


Image 15: Postcard published by Ehagaki Sekai, 1907: Eternal Spring

One kind of styles that cannot be found at that time are those with a straight trunk, be it slanted or upright. These are a Japanese invention and originated at a time where people turned away from Chinese models in the aftermath of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894/95). The first examples od these seem to be from a bonsai exhibition in 1902 and it appears that the trees had not been in long cultivation at that time.

Finally a short comment on the size of bonsai. This is a topic where you can often read in literature that bonsai used to be much larger in the past than they are today. The images clearly don't support this. Most bonsai are medium-sized, just as they are today. Larger trees are rare, and shohin sized trees seem not to have been common at all (apart from the fact that some bonsai lovers also enjoyed seedlings back then).

(Note: There was however a special type of large bonsai which is associated with a special type of container. Usually these are hexagonal, sometimes rectangular pots of about 40cm height and width. The surface is designed to resemble a turtle without a carapace (which is replaced by the pot opening). The planting typically consists of three trees (Three Friends) with the dominating pine not following a classic style, but instead naturalistic and slender, almost literati-like. The accompanying plants are sometimes from other species too. The entire arrangement has about a person's height. So far I haven't been able to find out what the significance of these plantings was.)

Prof. Dr. Gunter Lind


Note by Peter Krebs: The pot on image 4 is particularly interesting for pot lovers. This pot was probably made of wood. Later in Japan porcelain pots were created from these old models, such as the following one: 

OWARI Porcelain (see also the article Japan: Blue and White). 


Translation: Stefan Ulrich

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