Thoughts on the Art of Bonsai
by Walter J Scott
We rarely see an entire, mature tree up close in nature (a stunted tree growing in extreme conditions is a notable exception). Look upward from its base and the tree foreshortens above us. Trees may be cloaked by the branches of neighboring trees, so that even if we step back, we cannot see the entire tree. Because bonsai are smaller versions of their natural counterparts, we can admire these trees more fully. Bonsai literally bring us closer to nature (of course, there is more to the idea of being closer to nature than just physical distance, but that is the subject of another post). Size then is an important aspect of our relationship to bonsai, but to be more accurate it is their size relative to us, their scale, that matters.
In the fields of art and design, the term scale refers to the size of one object (usually the artwork) in relation to another (usually the viewer). Artists and designers use the concept of scale to create a sense of awe, to prod us to see common objects differently, to highlight details and manipulate perspective, to make viewers reconsider their place in the universe, to tell a story, and for many other reasons. In some cases, an artwork’s scale is the dominant part of an artwork’s “aesthetic”, such as the large-scale balloon dogs of Jeff Koons (fig. 1) or the small-scale sculpted environments (fig 2.) of Alan Wolfson. Within a given artwork, the term proportion refers to the size of objects relative to one another. How do these design concepts apply to Bonsai?
Fig. 1, Ballon Dog, artist Jeff Koons
Fig. 2, Miniature NYC street scene, artist Alan Wolfson (note the actual, full-size quarter in the photo).
When we view bonsai, we can appreciate them in two main ways, that is from a technical point of view and from an artistic or aesthetic point of view (obviously, I am making an artificial distinction here…). However, for the sake of discussion let’s consider them separately for now. Large scale trees and small scale trees each bring with them a unique set of technical constraints and opportunities for the bonsai artist. We appreciate the difficulty of caring for a very large tree, from the logistics of moving it and repotting it, to the skill and time that it took to (usually) collect it and have it survive the transition into a bonsai container. Bending large, thick branches also requires skill and technique. An advantage for the bonsai artist working on a large scale bonsai is that the leaves, fruit, flowers, buds and branches are naturally more appropriately proportioned and therefore more consistent with the desired image of a tree in miniature.
Small scale trees must survive in a minimal amount of soil and because of that the bonsai artist must closely monitor soil moisture. Skill is required to keep them vigorous while at the same time restraining their size. For small scale bonsai, the leaves and buds may seem out of proportion for such a small tree, but careful selection of cultivars or varieties of plants with smaller leaves can mitigate this potential flaw. For certain species, bonsai cultural techniques can help to decrease the size of foliage, shorten internodes, and control branch thickening. Additionally, using small scale trees with proportionately thicker trunks can strongly suggest the image of an older, larger tree even when placed in a small container. Paying attention to proportion may be especially important when it comes to creating a successful small scale bonsai.
Beyond technique however, large scale bonsai affect the viewer differently than small scale bonsai, the relationship with the viewer is different for each, in a sense they ask different things of the viewer. To begin with, for most viewers large scale bonsai provoke a “Wow!” response. The sheer size and an awareness of the logistical considerations noted in the previous paragraphs are impactful and may create a feeling of awe. Large scale bonsai (large as defined based on current examples seen in most exhibitions in the West and in Japan) alter the space around them. They may require the viewer to move around to see and appreciate them fully, to step back to take them in or to view them from multiple angles, often to look upwards. They require more space in the exhibition, they are heavy, they have gravitas.
Small scale bonsai, on the other hand, ask the viewer to bend down and look more closely in order to fully appreciate them. They invite the viewer in. They reward detailed looking, but in a different way from larger bonsai. Careful inspection can identify the cues that the bonsai artist used to create the image of an ancient tree in a very small container.
The concept of scale provides both the bonsai artist and the viewer with constraints and opportunities. An awareness of not just the size of a bonsai but also of the relationship of bonsai size to the viewer significantly enhances our appreciation of bonsai art.