Choose your language

English (32) Deutsch (22) Español (12) Português (8) Slovak (7) Hungarian (6) Croatian (5) Française (4) Czech (1) Italiano (1) Romanian (1)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Styles and Forms - English

This was originally written around 1998 and revised in 2001. This is the revised version. It was published in international bonsai consequently. This article was published on the early IBC list on the internet. It was met with lots of controversy. It was foreseen by people who had the say that this was a futile attempt. Today, about 10 years later it seems a bit dated but the terminology is accepted by many now.

Styles and forms
A revised attempt for classification by Walter Pall

If we look at traditional styles of art we can see e.g. the roman, the gothic, the renaissance, the baroque style, and a number of modern styles. In all these styles churches, official buildings, private homes etc were built, paintings were done, sculptures were made. All these can clearly be seen to belong to one category, but they were made in different styles. A church could be built in the gothic style or in the renaissance style, but it was always a church. There is no “church style”. We speak of style to denote common characteristics of pieces of art of an epoch, a region a single artist or a group of artists. It is an abstract term which helps to classify art. Style means the “approach” to a subject and not a category. In painting there is no “upright standing man style” or “woman in a chair style”. If one stands in front of a painting and asks the question: “what style is it?”, one would never get “sitting man” as a response. These are forms or genres, which can be painted in numerous (usually well documented and described) styles which can vary, but the subject will always be recognized in it’s form.
In bonsai this is not different, but the common terminology mixes styles and forms. An “informal upright” bonsai can be designed in many different ways which can vary considerably, but it will always be recognized as the same form. We have a word for the form, but not really for the different styles, because the general underlying understanding is that only one style, the classical, exists. The usage of the word form or style varies in most bonsai publications. Often these words seem to be used as synonyms.
A style in the bonsai world is not the same as in the art world in general. While we are all used to this it is not necessarily correct nor is it helpful. The origins of this can come from translations from Japanese into English and other languages. It can also come from early bonsai authors who did know something about bonsai, but not so much about art history; just as the early translators. It could also be that the Japanese don’t care about terminology as much as we do. In “Classic Bonsai of Japan”1 the words style and form are sometimes used as synonyms. In China the term “school” is used to point at different styles. The word “school” could be used in this context for the term “style” as referred to in this article. Alan Walker2 suggested to use the term “schools of design”, deriving at it from Ikebana, which has spread all over the world and where outside of Japan several specific styles which reach beyond traditional ikebana have developed which are recognizable and have names. Styles develop and go from an early stage to a high-level stage to end in a late stage in which things are becoming exaggerated. Why should this be different in bonsai than in all other art forms?
Someone who sees a bonsai wants to categorize it. Traditionally we want to classify it in just one „style“. With many bonsai we are having problems. These problems have increased in the past decade with the up rise of new „styles“ or variations of „styles“. People from different cultures are practicing the art of bonsai and bring in new details and even new “styles” for which we don’t even have a name yet. The art of bonsai has spread all over the world now, new species are introduced which are not traditional yet. Often we stand in front of a bonsai and find that it is very difficult to impossible to give it one „style“. Is this a poor bonsai, or is it that our scheme of classification is poor and needs improvement?
One has to differentiate between styles and forms in the bonsai art. Both are commonly used as if they were the same.
The form is decided by what is most conspicuous at first sight by the viewer. This is not different from the traditional Japanese categories. What’s different in this proposed scheme is that a bonsai can have several forms at the same time. This is not really new – it was always like this, but it was never clearly reflected in the traditional classification. Forms can be differentiated in the following form categories:
according to trunk direction: formal upright, formal broom (a sub form of formal upright), informal upright, informal broom, slanting, cascade (full and semi).
according to number of trunks: single trunk, multitrunk or group.
according to tendency of crown: one-sided (called windswept so far), branches on both sides.
according to planting medium: in pots or on a stone, on a stone slab, a rock or over a rock, with roots in soil of pot.
according to seasonal appearance: winter tree (without foliage) and a summer tree; it can be a blooming or a fruiting tree.
according to thickness of trunk compared with height of the tree: slim trunks (called literati “style” so far), normal trunks or fat trunks.
according to amount of deadwood used in design: lot of deadwood (called driftwood style so far), little or no deadwood.
There are more form categories still to be defined or discovered. Charles Ceronio went through the chore to collect and meticulously describe all conceivable forms3. He has spotted quite a few which are not yet part of the common bonsai vocabulary.
This is not meant to make the well known Japanese forms or “styles” obsolete. They are all contained in this scheme. The difference is only that they have been given a more logical order and there have been added a few other forms. It is perfectly OK to still use the traditional Japanese terms for them, but it is not necessary and does not make the classification clearer.
Every serious bonsai enthusiast is aware or the rules for designing the major forms. Sometimes irritations occur when these rules are not observed and when they even are quoted differently by different authors. What most people are not aware, is that the rule for a form is influenced by the general style that is used. The rules for designing bonsai in a certain form change according to the style applied. So, if one chooses to work in the classical style and wants to design an informal upright conifer, the well known Japanese rules apply. If one wants to work in a contemporary style, the rules are different, but are usually not (yet) well defined. This is the whole thrust of this scheme: rules for designing a form depend on the overlaying style chosen!
In “Classic Bonsai of Japan”4 a clear distinction is made between what is called a ”visual” and “abstract” approach towards bonsai. The visual approach places emphasis on the objective appearance and shape of the bonsai. This has predominated among the Japanese and throughout the western world. The way a tree grows and the manner in which it has been fashioned into an artistic composition – in aesthetic terms, the form and the design are the main occupation of the visual approach. On the other hand there is the abstract5 approach to the appreciation of miniature trees and landscapes, an approach that, while finding pleasure in the objects themselves, firmly rejects excessive preoccupation with or the insistence on forms or shapes. It is less concerned with the physical appearance of the bonsai than with it’s spirit. Talk of visual and abstract approaches, does no more than describe different emphases in appreciation, and the two are not mutually exclusive. This concept, described in an official publication of the Nippon Bonsai Association is more or less the same as the distinction between form and style as described here. The form is the conspicuous part of a bonsai, the style is the overlying philosophy, the spirit of the tree. The style, the spirit comes first; then comes the form.
Here are four style categories (but there are more to be defined yet):
Classic and Contemporary
Classical: This is the style which is commonly associated with „good“ bonsai. These are trees which stick to the well known Japanese rules. They are usually slightly expressionistic and abstract. This means, the designer does not try to give the impression of a real tree but rather he has an inner felling for the ideal tree which he expresses. This always applies to conifers. Deciduous trees are often naturalistic and less expressionistic. A good classical artist is seen as one who uses (copies) the classical forms and conforms to the classical rules as far as possible.
Yuji Yoshimura has given an excellent historical overview of the development of the art of bonsai6. According to him the development of classical bonsai started around 1600 with an early period which lasted until 1800. The middle classical period from 1800 to 1950 brought considerable refinement. The late classical period lasts from 1950 to today. In this period the refinement has reached new heights. Yoshimura sees most bonsai which were not styled or maintained in Japan outside of the classical group, either in the neo-classical or contemporary style.
There is the early-classical bonsai style, which can only be in the forms which were accepted before the 19th century: formal upright, informal upright, slanting, cascade, single trunk multitrunk, group, and on rock. In the 19th century the literati form was introduced in Japan. In the 20th century the formal broom form was developed.
Yoshimura sees most bonsai which were done in some sort of classical fashion outside of Japan as done in the neo-classical style. These are “bonsai that have been created based on the Japanese aesthetic sensibilities and the fundamentals of classical bonsai but which go beyond the framework of the classical bonsai of the past and were created through the subjectivity of the individual”.
The classical style is being repeated in the West since a couple of decades over and over again. Nothing was really added to it. The forms often became a cliché, stereotyped. The classical rules, which should really just be guidelines were far too often followed rigidly and even misunderstood. It became common practice to style deciduous trees as if they were conifers. This is so widespread by now that a naturalistic deciduous tree looks awkward to most western bonsai enthusiasts. They have gotten so used to the high level of abstraction of the classical trees that a natural looking bonsai seems strange. Many western bonsai enthusiasts are not aware that a great percentage of deciduous bonsai in Japan are not styled like a conifer, but rather in a naturalistic style. The “specimen” trees that are exported are, however usually styled in a stereotype way. This is because they are cheaper to develop that way and the western public expects them to look that way. Also conifers are often styled with conical apexes in the West, which sometimes is appropriate, but more often is a common misunderstanding of classical rules. Most good classical bonsai in Japan have rounded apexes.
Thus the term neo-classical is often used in a derogative way, meaning a bonsai which is styled as a cliché, which is a copy of a copy of a copy. And the quality is deteriorating with every copying. The bonsai somehow look all the same, as if they were cut out with a cookie-cutter – “cookie-cutter bonsai”.
There is a tendency in Japan recently to heavily underpot deciduous trees. Especially enormous trident maples are seen in incredibly shallow pots. A similar phenomenon is the exaggeration of a powerful nebari. There are some tridents with a nebari that has crossed the borderline to grotesque These are developments to the extreme. A shallower pot and a stronger nebari make the bonsai more powerful. So this is what is done. But there is an optimum and beyond that it is getting worse again. It is typical for an art style to go to extremes in a later period. The debate is open whether these grotesque tridents are neo-classical or just very late classical
Classic is a period in art history in which a zenith of artistic development was reached. A period of just repeating something what was developed in a classic period without adding new aspects is called classicism in art history or neo-classical. In a way one could go with Yoshimura and see what the majority of westerners by and large are practicing as bonsai art as neo-classical. This is a somehow derogative term, which, however expresses well the feeling of some artists who are becoming more and more allergic against classical appearance. Some even are starting to see classical bonsai as old-fashioned. This is normal during a time of change. This state of mind is necessary to start questioning traditions and to dare doing completely new things. It does not at all mean that classical bonsai are really outdated. Classical in the sense of proven value through time honored and developed traditions and a heritage to look up to will always mean this to the wise avant-garde artist.
One would have to note here that the Chinese trees don’t usually fall into what is normally called classic category, as this is specifically a Japanese classic. Penjings have their own classical appearance, which now more and more reappears in contemporary western bonsai. The classical penjings are much more naturalistic, impressionistic and often are transcendental. It is interesting to observe that the modern, contemporary bonsai in China and other Asian countries seem to be created more according to the classical Japanese style. This is certainly true of bonsai in Taiwan, where e.g. one can see extraordinary ficus bonsai which look like an enormous pine – they are neo-classical.
Classic and classical are not the same! Webster's dictionary: classic: of the first or highest quality, class or rank: a classic piece of work. classical: of or pertaining to a style of literature and art characterized by conformity to established treatments, taste, or critical standards, and by attention to form with the general effect of regularity, simplicity, balance, proportion, and controlled emotion. So it is no contradiction to say that a truly outstanding bonsai can be a classic example of the contemporary style.
Contemporary: The term “contemporary bonsai” was first used by Yuji Yoshimura. He called everything that was not included under the classical and neo-classical style since the latter half of the 19th century as contemporary. There is not just one contemporary style, but there are several, not yet defined really, but definitely existing and different. It is important to note here that the classical, neo-classical and contemporary styles coexist already since quite a while. One cannot say that one period, like the classical ended and the next, like the neo-classical or contemporary followed.
The style which is used by the most progressive artists at the moment could also be called modern style. A typical artist is Kimura. Ernie Kuo7 insists that Kimura is working in a classical manner, but only with modern techniques. Luis Fontanills8 makes it clear that Kimura himself has announced to be a contemporary artist with an avant-garde statement9: "But in the future, the bonsai art must be expressed in a new way, with a more expanded concept. We young bonsai artists must not be afraid to break with tradition, for the objectives are the same. If not, bonsai will evolve as a mere curiosity, but not an art. .... Because we are breaking with the tradition of many centuries, our bonsai may not even seem very attractive. Perhaps the critics do not realize that the break goes only to the form, but not the substance, since our spirit in cultivating bonsai continues to be the same: goodness, beauty and peace." Some call Kimura the crown of classical bonsai, they say that he has created classic trees. Kimura has designed many classical bonsai in the seventies and eighties but can hardly be called a classical artist anymore. Many of his contemporary pieces are landmarks for the major part of contemporary bonsai that he has coined. These trees can be called classic (note: not classical), as they will be the leading pieces for this present period.
Luis Fontanills says10: „What attracted me most to Kimura's work …was his most exploratory sculptural work (he also works within the classical genre). I felt a connection to his living sculpture, and did not see it as strange; then again I have grown up with modern art since I was a child. He has pushed the limits of bonsai and has created an expressionistic/abstract style that has become popular (much deadwood and movement) because it is dynamic and powerful. He is part of the avant-garde movement in bonsai. This type of expression/style is here to stay. It does not mean that the traditional/classical style will disappear, but it will be enriched by it, as the avant-garde is enriched by the past.”
A good contemporary artist is seen as one who is creative and dares to break new grounds, who uses old rules only if he sees fit. The deliberate breaking of classical rules is getting widespread among many artists in Europe and also some in America, it is regarded as a matter of course. The trees are much more expressionistic or more impressionistic than they used to be, they have a tendency to become extreme according to old standards.
Contemporary does not mean one uniform style. History will tell which one of the many present trends will become a style by itself. The “Kimura Style” is best known: very powerful conifers, with enormous thick trunks compared to the height of the tree. A proportion of 1:3 (trunk width vs. height of the tree) has become normal, which used to be considered grotesque. These trees can be called “sumo bonsai” because of their forceful and somehow exaggerated appearance. The use of deadwood is dominating. Many trees seem to exist of 90 % deadwood. The forms are fantastic, unreal, although often naturally grown deadwood is used. The crowns are quite small, emphasizing the power of the trunk and the deadwood. The whole crown is stepping back in importance. It often seems to be there just to show that the tree is alive. The crown decorates the powerful trunk and the overwhelming deadwood and not the other way rond. In the classical style the crown was the most important part which was held by an impressive trunk and often decorated by deadwood. The crown is often styled according to silhouette. It is not so important anymore where the branches are exactly. If there is no branch where one should be, a branch is bent down, sometimes in awkward contortions which are covered by foliage. The number one branch becomes less important. It is more important that the foliage is in the right position. The crown often is shaped like a canopy in a mushroom-like form with layers being just suggested. When slim trunks are used they have a strong tendency towards the driftwood form. The trunk forms go to extremely contorted and twisted shapes which used to be called grotesque before.
The usage of pots is going in new directions. All sorts of „weird“ pots and plantings are being tried out. Traditionally trees planted on rocks are not even classified as bonsai. Now trees planted on rocks, on rusty iron constructions (Farrand Bloch) and even on statues and skulls (Nick Lenz) are considered bonsai. The trend is going away from display in tokonoma, and new ways are being found. Salvatore Liporace displayed an enormous larch sitting on a rusty oil drum. The classical accent objects are more and more often being replaced by other things.
Conifers are usually styled in the abstract and expressionistic contemporary style. Deciduous trees are often styled in a naturalistic and impressionistic manner similar to the classical Japanese style or also in a style which looks very much like penjing. Now this is becoming a trend in the West too with new species and forms not seen before. One could call it either contemporary or neo-classical.
It is clear that the new liberal spirit opens the door to all sort of nonsense. This new freedom can be used by a genius or a fool to declare anything as bonsai art now. But it opens the door, and new creations will evolve which will pass the test of art history. It will tell us eventually whether something we have not liked at all at first sight was just a mistake or a breakthrough into a new era. Such a breakthrough can be clearly visible to everyone or just be a subtle detail. It helps a lot to not have to care about a traditionalist sensei doing his critique in a traditionalist manner afterwards. Therefore it is not by coincidence that the new creations mostly come from quarters where the Japanese influence is minimal. Some even are proud to not have had Japenese teachers and feel that they are not “corrupted “ by oldfashioned design patterns. At the same time a lot of “good tries” or simply rubbish can be the result.
If one speaks of contemporary bonsai art, often examples are presented of trees, pots or exhibits which seem to be contemporary, but are quite old. This is supposed to prove that there is no such thing as contemporary bonsai. Yes, It is always possible to find a tree that was done in the contemporary style, but only much earlier. There are many examples of trees which could pass as modern avant-garde bonsai. It is usually overseen that contemporary bonsai started already at the end of the 19th century in Japan and continued to coexist with the classical style until today. Also pots can be found which are quite old and still as extreme as some are nowadays. This is very interesting, but does not change the concept.
In art there are always creative people who try something. In countries with so many bonsai practitioners like Japan or China virtually everything must have been tried before. But the test is whether this from then on became a trend or a movement. Usually this was not the case. Maybe the artist was not known well enough, maybe the piece just was not good enough anyway, or often it just was not the time yet. If a new style becomes a trend, then one must consider the very early examples as important landmarks. If a trend did not evolve from this, it is just for the records. History of art is full of such examples which do not prove at all that a new style is not new. Sometimes it may happen that a style which was started and finished in a dead end some time ago, becomes rediscovered and then really takes off.
Let’s take Impressionism as an example11. The term impressionism, or impressionistic painting, describes a kind of painting which is flecked and somewhat formless, as opposed to that which is linear and clearly silhouetted. It applies to many epochs. The term Impressionism, however applies to a particular late nineteenth-century style… There were already Roman wall paintings which are clearly impressionistic. This shows that styles somehow are always present, but sometimes are becoming dominant for a while. Why should this not be true for the bonsai art?
For an artist to work in a specific style means more than just a decision to do so. It means a total change of mind, of a way of thinking about bonsai and doing bonsai, turning away from traditions radically. It is understandable that those who (still?) hold up traditions have great problems accepting this and are usually fierce enemies of change. History has shown that the young revolutionaries get old and then fiercely defend their revolution against new ones.
While we all know how to judge classical bonsai most enthusiasts have a problem with evaluating more contemporary creations. It only seems that these are outside the bounds of established standards; they are only out of the bounds of established rules for classical design. As Lynn Boyd12 points out, there are always standards, long-lasting and universal standards to judge by – even the avant-garde. A judge can move from the list of conventions (rules) onto the very long-established area of proportions, balance, texture, relationship of objects, conceptual arrangement, as what might be termed compositional elements. And Brett Johnson13 adds that there are well defined rules to judge abstract sculpture dealing with geometric shapes, according to which bonsai as a form of sculpture can be judged. Even if there are no rules it is always the artist who must have some standard with which to create. He may not be able to verbalize that standard, but it is still there.
This requires much from the judges, as they must be flexible and have a broader knowledge base from which to draw. Because of this, bonsai in the category of avant-garde/contemporary should be categorized in an exhibition as such and judged as such. This is another reason why classification of traditional and avant-garde must continue to be proposed and disseminated; it allows the existence and validation of these more radical bonsai within the formal public exhibits.
Where will this all go? There is much talk about national (Western) bonsai styles which are evolving or which are even already there. The new liberal spirit leads some to believe that one should try hard to create a national style. But who needs that and why? There are cases where a certain tree species grows in a particular way in one country. This is about the only need for a national style or rather form. How about a “Liechtenstein Style”?
The truth is that while some countries are progressing at higher speed than others it is very unlikely that the result will be clearly national styles. This was true in arts at times when there was almost no communication between nations. Nowadays with travel being so easy and everyday communication in person or via pictures across national boundaries is normal, everybody learns from everybody else across the whole world. The result will be more liberty and more distinctive personal styles, especially in the West. Colin Lewis14 doesn’t see a homogenizing of bonsai styles, but a diversification, as more creative souls take up the art.
There will be more artists who feel free to do what they think is right and they will have followers, thus creating new groups which style in a certain way all over the world. They may have more followers in some countries for a time, but this then should not be called a “national” style.

Naturalistic and Abstract
Naturalistic: This is the style where trees are formed so that they look as close as possible like real trees. This means that many classical rules have to be broken. Often these trees are looked at as „weeds“ or raw material by the audience who is not yet used to them. It seems to be easy to design a naturalistic tree – just let it grow. This is by no means true. A good bonsai in the naturalistic style needs just as much consideration as an abstract one. Otherwise it really is just a weed.
In many discussions on the internet it became obvious that most people find it difficult to accept the term “naturalistic”. The general feeling is that it is superfluous because every serious bonsai enthusiast tries to create natural looking bonsai anyway. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most bonsai enthusiasts try to create bonsai which are as ideal as possible, making them quite the opposite of naturalistic; they are rather abstract, idealized trees. Another misunderstanding is that people think a naturalistic bonsai is one that is left as is, without any further design. This is, of course, absolutely not the case. Lynn Boyd15 proposed to call it “romantic” style. This should be a title which is better understood by most people.
Any bonsai or piece of art needs some degree of abstraction. The naturalistic bonsai has a lesser degree than the abstract one, but it still has the helping hand of the artist. Only the artist wants this to look like it was never touched by human hand. If done well, it it may look to the audience like this should not be so difficult, they could do the same thing. This is similar to people standing in front of a modern abstract painting and saying that this could be done by their child. Well, if this is the case, why is the child not world-famous?
It is interesting to note here that many contemporary artists are either going towards very abstract or very natural trees, to the extreme in any case. It is often overseen that many classical trees of Japan are naturalistic and also most penjings. In the West this seems to be revolutionary. It is only as a reaction to neo-classical design with slavish adhearance to rules which never were meant to be used like a law.
We have to be reminded that style in the context of this classification means the overall spirit of a bonsai, contrary to the form, the shape of a specific tree. One can well take a classical form and design it with naturalistic details, thus creating a naturalistic bonsai, because of the overall feeling. For many tree species and certainly for many individual trees the classical forms just don’t fit; at least this is the feeling of some artists. Thus they have started to create new forms with trees that before were not used commonly as bonsai. Vaughn Banting has dared to replicate the natural look of Swamp Cypresses, which have a flat top with several crowns in nature. The author has pioneered the candelabra form on conifers. Very often trees along the timberline are struck by lightening and the main trunk dies. Lower branches develop into one or several new trunks which then look like a candelabra. Another form that has emerged to accurately describe and represent trees that grow in nature is the Banyan “style” for Ficus. Banyan trees grow in tropical climates and typically include air roots that emerge from the trunk and descend from branches to the soil. In nature these roots function to stabilize the tree and to help the tree establish it's "territory". Another example is the Baobab “style” which resembles the rather strange natural growth of Baobab trees in Africa. In South Africa Baobab trees are styled just like they appear in nature, with their enormous branches which look like fat roots sticking into the air.
Charles Ceronio mentions16 some more African forms besides the Baobab-form which he calls “styles”: The Pierneef17 Form: The acacia is a tree every one knows in Africa. It grows in a typical almost geometrical semi-circle-crown, like open umbrellas. Another form is the Flat Top Form, which again is the typical form of an acacia species which is common in the warmer parts of Africa and there actually is called “flat top acacia”. The top is very flat indeed and someone outside Africa might call it grotesque. But it all is just a matter of what one is used to see. Ceronio also defines the Bushveld or Natural Form, which is basically the same as the informal broom form, or Oak Form, which is the most common form of deciduous trees anyway. The Wild Fig Form is mainly identical to the American Banyan “style”.
The overwhelming majority of deciduous trees and many conifers grow in the informal broom form in nature which usually has a single trunk with some taper that very soon spreads into several trunks which grow upwards and again spread into upwards growing branches. The trunk and the branches of this form are bent. When they are straight, one speaks of the well documented formal broom form. It is most interesting to note that traditional bonsai rules simply have no term for this form which is by far the most frequent in nature. Every bonsai enthusiast must have wondered at one time why he is not supposed to style his trees just like the ones he sees in his front yard. Contemporary bonsai artists now style in exactly that way. Paul A. Ringo18 has described this form which he calls “live oak style” and wonders why it is not used more often for western species. One can go further and also wonder why it is not used more often for Asian species.
The informal broom form could make a similar career as the informal upright or mojogi form. It is very hard to believe that as late as 1955 in Japan it seemed to be necessary to encourage the public to use this “new” form. When the natural resources of collected material had shrunk considerably it became normal to create bonsai from nursery grown trees. These were invariable in “ideal” shapes – at the time the formal upright form too often was the only ideal. So the advice in “An Easy Guide To Bonsai”19 was: “ the individual tree freely in accordance with its own characteristics, so as to bring out its special flavor to the full”. This was aimed at the fashion of trying to style every tree into the formal upright form and thus creating clichés and repetitions which all looked alike and often where not fit for the species used. It seemed to be necessary to make it clear to people that trunks did not have to be straight, they could be bent; branches did not have to be straight and always in the ideal position, they could have bends and kinks.
It is hard to believe today that the informal upright form needed special encouragement not so long ago. It is by far the most common and popular form today. The informal broom form could go the same way. It is nothing more than a variation of the informal upright form, where most branches appear on one level and branches in general have a strong tendency to grow upwards – a form found in most deciduous trees out in nature.
Naturalistic and natural are not the same. A naturalistic tree can be created with very artificial design methods. It is quite possible to have a tree with totally artificial deadwood which was created so well that it absolutely looks natural. It is also common to wire a tree up to 100 % and carefully bring all the branches in position so that the tree looks very natural. This is one of the paradoxes of bonsai.
As Colin Lewis has pointed out20 we should not forget that bonsai are a tiny fraction of the size of their natural counterparts, They therefore need to be simpler in structure and form. Salient characteristics need to be enhanced and irrelevancies eliminated. So it is simply not feasible to just copy a large tree. A bonsai conveys not necessarily the exact appearance of a natural tree, but the sensation one feels when you see it. The most skillful artists magnify the sensation by presenting us only with those elements that create it. One can create this sensation by simplifying and idealizing the tree, by making it more and more abstract. Then it is a rather abstract bonsai. One can also create this sensation by using natural forms and details, then it becomes a more naturalistic bonsai. But it is still far away from a direct copy of a natural tree, it is still idealized somewhat and thus abstract; but less than the first one.
It would be a mistake to think that it is easier to create a good naturalistic bonsai than an abstract one. Exactly the contrary is true. A naturalistic bonsai resembles an ideal, a typical natural tree. What is normal should obviously be easy to create. But just like a graceful move in dance or athletics, it is deceptive in its simplicity. It looks so easy ... until you try to replicate it. Then the apparent simplicity is unmasked to reveal quite a bit of complexity21. One has to appreciate that a bonsai always is abstract to some degree. The classical bonsai are quite abstract. There are well known rules or guidelines which tell us how to create a classical, abstract tree. But there are very few written rules which tell us how to create a naturalistic tree. The solution is not to just let a tree grow, cut it back and let it grow again. By this standard clip and grow method one gets a pruned tree. But it depends very much on how the tree was pruned. It can well become an abstract tree that way.
Reiner Goebel22 asks : “ bonsai started out with 'natural' or 'naturalistic' plants, a thousand some odd years ago. It took all this time to get it to its present state of refinement. And now you want to turn the sun dial back?“ No, not at all. This is what is meant: „Pause for a moment and think what you are doing. Bonsai is the art of giving a small tree in a pot the appearance of a large tree – or use any similar definition. Now, what are most doing? Are they looking at large, natural trees and try to bring this feeling onto their bonsai. Or are they looking at bonsai books, at rules and try to copy bonsai masterpieces and apply rules? The latter is the case. How about a painter who paints people and goes to museums, studies books, hides himself and paints what he KNOWS should be painted. When he walks on the street he sees real people, but not for as second it comes to his mind that these could be used as models. The real people don’t conform to the rules this person has learned about “ideal” people. Change real people or change the rules?“
As John Naka has pointed out repeatedly and shown in his famous books, the bonsai enthusiast cannot look enough at natural big trees to get inspiration for his art. Lisa Kanis23has noticed that bonsai influences the way one looks at trees in nature rather than the other way around. This is an interesting observation and explains why so many bonsai enthusiasts enjoy looking at trees and pictures of them, only to go back and design their bonsai to look like bonsai rather than natural trees. In discussions on the internet it is repeatedly pointed out that while a picture of a tree in nature can look beautiful to most people, this does not mean that it would look beautiful as bonsai. Meaning: if it breaks some classical bonsai rules!. How about that: a person that looks beautiful to most people does not look beautiful on a painting. Meaning: if it does not look like the “ideal” human being. How brainwashed can one get? This goes so far that bonsai people who see the picture of a natural tree that breaks some bonsai rules but that is considered most beautiful by the overwhelming majority of ordinary people will say that it is not a nice tree. They are not aware anymore that they are applying neo-classical bonsai rules to a natural tree and judging it by these, instead of using their common sense and change their rules according to reality.

A sub-category of the naturalistic style is the romantic style. Designs in this style drive the naturalistic side to the extreme, try to achieve a lovely tree or scenery also with inclusion of accessories like rocks and figurines. Examples are the water-and-land penjings of Qingquan Zhao and some creations of Nick Lenz.
Abstract or Idealistic: To create any bonsai or piece of art means some degree of abstraction. This simply means going away from the naturalistic appearance. Many people think that abstract means something that one does not recognize anymore. This is not true, it is only a question of degree. Instead of abstraction one could also say idealization. One takes a tree and makes it more ideal, thus making it more beautiful. The question is only how far this goes. The question is also whether it is becoming more beautiful and by what taste.
In the classical style conifers are usually in an abstract style, they look like a natural tree, only more ideal so. The form of the crown is idealized, the trunk and the nebari are perfect and the branch layers are well defined with clean edges.
The abstraction can be brought much further in the contemporary style. This is when the design has given up trying to follow natural forms. Although it is always a living tree it looks like a tree from another planet. The deadwood looks more like a sculpture than natural deadwood. Crowns are styled just to show that the tree is alive. The uniform, small crowns that Kimura often uses, go in this direction.
The ideal tree is the archetype of a tree, or an icon that the viewer recognizes as such. This means that the viewer must have the same or a similar idea of what is ideal to immediately appreciate the bonsai. With classical bonsai the viewer either always had a similar icon in his mind or he has learned to see the classical archetype as ideal.
Contemporary artists are using more and more extreme material to form extreme bonsai. Nowadays the more contorted and fantastic looking, the better. This means that the artists have changed their idea of an ideal tree to an extreme tree. They are looking for the extremely formed material which allows them to do their abstract design.
This is not a totally new development in the history of bonsai, it is only new in the past decades. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868) there was a considerable number of fashions for bonsai in twisted of fantastic shapes. These were frowned upon later and today are becoming fashionable again.
Abstract and artificial are not the same. It is not necessary for an abstract bonsai to be created artificially. As long as the tree looks somewhat styled it is abstract. If it looks unreal, not from this world, like a sculpture it is very abstract. Parts of the tree or the whole can well be natural.
Naturally created deadwood that is untouched by any tool can make a bonsai abstract if the appearance is extreme. A trunk that was formed by nature and is contorted and twisted can be material for an outstanding bonsai which is abstract. This is hard to understand, but it has to be remembered that a bonsai is not a replica of a tree but an image, an icon of a tree. It is classically the icon of an ideal tree, which is a “normal”, a “natural” tree. This image can be very close to reality, then the bonsai is naturalistic. The image can be more away from reality and then the bonsai is becoming more and more abstract. At one point the image does not represent a “natural, ideal” tree but an extreme tree - a tree that is so extreme, that it cannot stand as typical anymore.
One can imagine a line which is divided in half. On the left is naturalistic, on the right is abstract. The further one goes on the line to the extreme point one either gets an absolutely naturalistic and on the other extreme an absolutely abstract tree. If someone does the naturalistic style to the extreme, he is taking a shrub and plant it into a pot. On the other extreme, if someone is doing the abstraction to the extreme, he takes a tree in a pot and prunes it in a perfect uneven triangle, like topiary is sometimes practiced. Both extremes will probably not be considered good bonsai. The truth is somewhere in the middle of this line with naturalistic on the left and abstract on the right. A specific bonsai will never be at the extreme end of this line, but somewhere in between. The style that it has depends on whether it is closer to the naturalistic or the abstract extreme. All that counts is the appearance of the bonsai. A quite naturalistic tree often is considered not to be a bonsai but a piece of raw material by the audience. At the same token a quite abstract tree is often considered not to be a bonsai as well, but rather a sculpture. Both creations are on two opposite extremes.
It does not make any difference whether the appearance was created by man or by nature. So it is perfectly valid sometimes to call a bonsai which was put into a pot more or less unaltered, as it was found in nature, an abstract bonsai. On the other hand, a tree that was thoroughly wired and shaped with lots of deadwood that was all created artificially can be a naturalistic bonsai.
Many bonsai enthusiasts have a problem with what they call “excessive” use of deadwood and very contorted shapes. They just don’t want to follow the artist to his degree of abstraction. Often it is said that this comes from the lack of exposure to very old wild trees. One can show pictures of natural trees which grow in extreme shapes and even prove that the bonsai in question was more than 95 % shaped by nature the way it appears. This does not help, because the bonsai still is abstract to some extreme, because it does not resemble a typical tree, but an extreme tree. The fact that one has to show to people that such trees really exist somewhere, is proof enough of the abstract nature of the creation. There is no need to prove that an ideal, nicely naturally grown maple, a typical maple, exists.
Pius Notter has pioneered the abstract style in Europe. He has used the natural material that can be found in the Alps in fantastic shapes to create expressionistic abstract bonsai. In the beginning he was accused of not creating images of trees but rather sculptures. This is a typical reaction to a degree of abstraction that the audience does not always want to follow.
Nature does not make abstract trees. Nature can create extremely shaped material that can be called grotesque, dwarfed, contorted or whatever fits. The artist then selects this material and uses it for an artistic tree. Only then it becomes abstract. Even if the artist chooses to not change at all what nature did it can be called abstract if it is part of art24.
It is apparent that in contemporary bonsai, extreme trees are becoming more and more fashionable. While a bonsai had to look like a “normal” tree somehow in the classical style, it seems to not matter much anymore. A normal tree is considered a boring tree. Some artists go for the most extreme material to shape fantastic bonsai. Often this is material that would have been considered unfit for bonsai some years ago. A trunk now often cannot have enough twists and kinks. If the deadwood makes a triple summersault it is considered excellent. But then some artists cannot understand why the public does not want to follow them to their degree of abstraction in what they consider outstanding bonsai.
Contemporary artists love quite abstract creations. It is much easier to look like a great artist when styling an extreme bonsai with “artistic” appeal, which is the same really as a high level of abstraction. The creative effort in a more abstract work is usually much more obvious, if only from its deviation from the norm. Still, the trick to success is to obscure these creative efforts so that the gestalt of the tree is what announces it rather than the stylizations25. It is in a way a shame that the naturalistic bonsai don’t look so artistic and therefore don’t appeal to many great bonsai artists.
Impressionistic and Expressionistic
Impressionistic: In painting most people think of impressionism to be connected with a totally new way of having treated light and color in the last decades of the 19th century. Really it was more than that. Before impressionism, painters would paint what they had learned to paint, what they had been taught to see. In the academic painting tradition they would study in buildings with partially artificial light and then paint a landscape and people not as they really appeared but as the painter had learned. The impressionists looked at what really could be seen and painted exactly that and not what academicians stressed should be painted and how. They broke with tradition and painted their impression with open eyes and minds to look fresh upon reality, and not what was expected; traditional subject matter and the method of painting it. This meant that all sorts of new forms of seeing and expression emerged, colors appeared which somehow were overlooked before. They also painted the shapes they saw and not the ones that they had studied and learned to paint.
Very much the same happens in bonsai art. Instead of designing a bonsai according to well known guidelines as one knows it “must” look like, one tries to capture the feeling of real trees. The shape becomes less important then the overall appearance. This is in sharp contrast to the classical bonsai style which relies more or less only on the “correct” shape of details to form in sum the “correct” shape of a specific form. In the impressionistic bonsai style the artist tries to design the tree so that the impression of what he sees in natural trees is reflected. An impressionistic bonsai wants to look like a tree rather than a stereotypical bonsai. Typical are branch forms which are close to natural vs. the stiff and over manicured look of classical branches. Also uncommon trunk forms, features like holes, kinks, upward growing branches would be found in this style. Trees are formed in the way the species grows in nature. A spruce looks like a spruce. The new style is especially conspicuous with deciduous trees. They are never formed to look like a conifer. The impressionistic trees are usually also naturalistic trees, but not necessarily. A naturally stunted tree with extreme twists and fantastic deadwood can be turned into a bonsai which is highly abstract and at the same time highly impressionistic. It’s the natural parts of the tree that make it impressionistic.
Two well documented traditional forms are impressionistic in nature. The formal broom form is an exact replica of what a Zelkova tree looks like if you let it grow as a standalone tree in a park. Using this style on the species is impressionistic and naturalistic. If one uses the formal broom form with straight trunk and branches for a maple, it would be more abstract, but still naturalistic. Now it has become an icon or stereotype. If it is used on a conifer, it is abstract and expressionistic and altogether probably not a beautiful bonsai anymore. The informal broom form with bent trunk and branches would be impressionistic and naturalistic fro maples and a very large number of other deciduous trees.
The windswept form is also quite impressionistic in nature. If done well, it gives the wonderful feeling of wind rustling through every leaf and twig. It is, however usually done too abstract, so that the movement seems to be frozen and unnatural. The growing-into-the light-form is similar, but a contemporary impressionistic version of the one-sided form. The tree grows away from a dark hollow or cliff right into the light and becomes one-sided. This is more active and usually more convincing than the windswept form.
Expressionistic: The expressionist sees himself in sharp contrast to the naturalist and impressionist. He does not want to copy reality, but he wants to show his reacting to reality. This is the style where the artist has an inner image of an ideal tree in general (mostly a pine tree) or an ideal tree concerning a certain species. The design follows this ideal rather than what many trees in nature really look like. Sometimes this ideal is imposed onto material that is just not suited for it. An expressionistic tree usually wants to look as much as a good traditional/classical bonsai as possible. Classical and neo-classical trees usually are expressionistic. Deciduous trees that look like a conifer are typical examples of expressionistic styles, they attempt to portray an ‘Iconographic Treeness* that is based on classical bonsai tradition.
Many artists get bored with repeating the same ideal tree over and over again and search for new ideals. They have a tendency to make shapes more extreme and close to grotesque and bizarre. Expressionistic usually goes with the abstract style, but not necessarily. One can design a bonsai which is highly naturalistic in the expressionistic style. Nick Lenz has done very naturalistic trees which are sitting on statues of goblins or on real skulls, spines or hands made of ceramics. This is fantastic realism, which is surrealism. This unexpected juxtaposition of a naturalistic/impressionistic tree and an unusual receptacle that is loaded with strong emotional meaning is surrealism in bonsai.
The impressionistic bonsai artist wants to give the feeling of a real tree, it wants to “show the truth”, whereas the expressionistic artist wants to “invent the truth”. The invented truth is better than the real truth, at least it is so for the expressionist.
Transcendental and Material
Transcendental or Metaphorical: This is the style which sees more in a tree than a tree. It can be a human being, an animal. The whole tree can be viewed as a human or animal or only parts of the tree. Often penjing were made to look like an animal or a human being or to at least give the impression. Nick Lenz has created some bonsai which he calls “anthropomorphic”.
Material or Realistic: This is the common way of styling a tree to look like a tree.

Does this all mean that we are getting rid of all the well known names of “styles” and replace them with “naturalistic, abstract, classical etc.? No, this would be a major misunderstanding. All the forms we know and all those that can be imagined are valid. They only get a new dimension. So far bonsai classification is one dimensional. The inherent understanding is that there is only one possible style – the classical one. When one accepts that a given form can have quite different feelings or appearances or a different spirit and one agrees that this can be called style, then a given bonsai form can be in many different styles. With the definition of some of these styles a second dimension is created which should make classification more accurate. It is even possible to go beyond this and add a third dimension or a fourth. This could be: sizes of bonsai, or major tree species, like conifers and deciduous. Even all tree species could form the third dimension, or even further dimensions.

More Styles
Formal upright

Informal upright

Full cascade

Semi cascade

Leaned form

Formal broom

Informal broom

Over rock


Many more forms

Table 1: This table shows styles on the horizontal and forms on the vertical scale. Not all styles and forms are shown. It is meant to classify a specific bonsai by putting it into a square. A tree is always in at least one form and one style. Often it is not easy to decide, because there are no definite lines to draw between the categories. One has to be aware that one single tree can sometimes be in more than one form and more than one style.
So styles can be mixed among the categories. And most forms can come under most styles. Where is the literati style? There is the middle-classical literati style, which is a slim trunk in the naturalistic and impressionistic style. In the contemporary style it sometimes can also be abstract if the trunk is very much contorted, and/or if the crown is just a symbolic patch of green.
With this categorization it becomes obvious that a tree can have various different styles and various different forms at one and the same time. This is not a contradiction, but clarification; it always was like this, we only had no words to describe it. One tree usually has only one main style or main form out of one category. For example, a bonsai is not usually radically impressionistic and expressionistic, formal and informal upright at the same time. A tree is either classical or contemporary, but usually not both. But sometimes elements of both extreme style categories can be found in one bonsai. There is no absolutely naturalistic or abstract bonsai. They all fall in between these two extremes somewhere.
The form is less ambiguous: the bonsai is a cascade or formal upright, it is as slim-trunk of fat-trunk tree, it has little or a lot of deadwood etc. But it can be described as belonging to many different style and also more than one form category. A bonsai may be in the contemporary, naturalistic, impressionistic style with the informal upright and lots-of deadwood form. In addition it might even be a flowering tree like a prune. Formerly one would have just said that this tree is in the „informal upright style“.
A bonsai does not necessarily stay within the style that it was first designed in. Obviously it can always be restyled. It is quite possible to take a tree in the naturalistic, impressionistic style and change it to the abstract, expressionistic style. Also the form can be changed by restyling. An informal upright form can be modified into a slanting form or a one sided form. Besides these drastic style changes there are more subtle changes which happen more or less without interference of the artist. By aging, a tree can change style. It is not unusual for a bonsai that used to be rather abstract, “over styled”, looking a bit licked, to get a much more naturalistic appearance by just letting it grow again. A deciduous tree that was styled with complete wiring often looks somehow artificial/abstract. When the new growth in the following years is just cut back and not wired anymore, often the crown develops a nice naturalistic/impressionistic feeling. After some years the artificial contortions of the main branches which were obviously formed by man get a more natural form and patina which changes the style. Conifer bonsai sometimes decide to let their lower branches die. This can result in a change of style from abstract to more natural.
An artist can, of course work in many styles. It is perfectly normal to find trees in the classical and contemporary styles from one person. To state that Kimura has done many classical bonsai is not proof that he is not a contemporary artist. In the end what counts is the style that most people would attach to a person. Picasso has done excellent rather naturalistic paintings in his younger years, but the whole world knows him for his abstract pieces. A normal development for an artist would be to start out with doing classical bonsai and then starting to experiment with more contemporary designs.
One could say that tree species have their style. Isn’t there a beech style or a pine style? Lynn Boyd says26: “No, there is not, each tree has a particular form and we style it in a manner consistent with this form. Even if in styling the original form of the tree the form is destroyed it still had a ‘tree’ form distinctly ‘individualistic’.  Either we style it in harmony with that form,  impressing upon it just enough artistry to enhance it, or we push it to an ‘expressive’  style all our own.  In the impressionistic we simply add touches which are our personal response to/with the tree's nature. In the expressionistic we go further,  we make of the tree an expression of our artistry more strongly and less of the tree's original, raw form. Style could be passionately expressionistic. The tree's natural form can contribute to the artist's inspiration.  Imagine what some malformed yamadori might inspire you to do.  This could be tempting to deal with and open one to wide variations from the ideal natural form. Then wouldn't the inspiration from a beautifully formed maple be possibly a gentler artistic touch?  Couldn't it be so little as to be only potting and trimming the tree to ‘display’ it.  It would be impressionistic because we have ‘claimed’ it and changed it by just doing so.  Or it may require the straightening of one branch, the clipping here and there to further the impression of perfection to an ideal form. We can have in the raw material we select,  ideal forms (archetypes), or slightly less than perfect form for that tree, or we can have the malformed from exposure. Each would inspire as an individual tree form.”
Why all this hairsplitting?
Is this just a discussion about vocabulary and meaning? So why would one have to learn all this vocabulary, when we think to have enough vocabulary in the bonsai world already? The proposed classification scheme can serve several purposes.
The most important is to be able to communicate about specific and general bonsai in a clearer way. The purpose here is to give all of us a more meaningful and familiar language as we grow into a world-wide art form. This is the same thing as done with other art objects. It makes communication clearer, but not necessarily easier. It gets more complex because now it can be described. It was complex before, but we don't always have the right words which everybody understands to communicate. With this scheme you can e.g. explain why a certain judgment scheme is one-sided because only trees of one style can score high in it. One can open the eyes of the judges and also of the 'in-group' of people, of the opinion leaders, who thought that somehow all bonsai belong or should belong to one general style, which is the classical. You can explain why a bonsai can score very low on singular aspects in a classically oriented judging scheme and at the same time very high in overall appearance.
The long discussions on the internet have shown that the established artists will be the last ones to accept this classification. They can proudly point at their achievements which have been made without this “unnecessary” classification. They may also be afraid to loose ground if new styles are becoming acceptable and their own creations may be regarded as old-fashioned. More applause will come from those artists who already break new grounds, because they see a chance of becoming more accepted. But, as Alan Walker27 has pointed out, they often find a classification demeaning and trivializing of their creations, for it detracts from the freshness and uniqueness of the bonsai and plants it in a maze of stereotypical formulae.
The second reason is to be able to think about your own trees in a new light. You can ask yourself for example, why is it that many people try to convince you to restyle this tree while you really like it exactly the way it is. Ahh, it is because they view it with the classical, abstract, expressionistic eye, which is the "classical" eye. And you view it with the contemporary, naturalistic, impressionistic eye. So it is two different categories which are  not easily compared. It is also a matter of acquired taste. Now you can lay back and listen to the remarks much more relaxed, because you know that nothing is "wrong", It is only the point of view, which comes from being used to a style or not. 
The third reason is to know better what you are really doing when you design a tree. For example you may think that it breaks the rules when you design a branch a certain way. You may even feel reluctant and guilty about it. Now you know that you are trying to create in an impressionistic, naturalistic manner. You don't break “eternal” rules really – contemporary design is about breaking rules in a way! You only would if you were trying to create a classical tree. You can also be aware that going away from the classical style opens a whole new world, but does not make things easier. You cannot get away with anything and have a harder time than before, because there are not so many rules that are written, but there are some which you have to discover yourself. You are also aware that people will judge your tree with their classical eye and possibly not like it. You may be more aware that you are doing this for yourself and not others. You can also realize that you are styling a tree in a way which does not conform with the species. For example you may realize that you are doing neo-classical (or classicistic) bonsai when you design a trident maple to look like a pine tree.
The fourth reason is to be able to speak to people in a workshop, in a tree critique, on an interactive gallery. In addition of speaking about the form, which they usually are quite aware of, one can speak about the style of the tree which they are not consciously aware of usually. When someone asks which branches to cut off, and how to form the crown, one can explain that this is first of all a question of style. The style comes first and decides the rules of how to design the tree. You can say that it is not necessary to always style in the classical way. You can also say that there is a great difference between a naturalistic style which follows some rigid design with many unwritten and some written rules and an amateurish bonsai which is not really styled well. This can help people more than just telling them: 'cut off this branch'.
The fifth reason is to be able to explain some phenomena in bonsai. One is that many bonsai enthusiasts have a great problem with contemporary bonsai. Either they are just too abstract for them or just too naturalistic, not looking like a (classical or classicistic) bonsai. It can be explained why even proving with photographs that extreme trees exist does not help. Another phenomenon is the fact that quite a lot of contemporary bonsai artists don’t do much or anything with deciduous trees. It can be explained that this is so because these don’t lend themselves to the extreme abstraction as conifers do. Extreme abstraction is considered “artistic”, while extreme naturalism appears to be just a horticultural result. The great difficulty and long time in creating an outstanding naturalistic tree is not immediately visible, while the artistry in creating an abstract piece of art is immediately seen, especially if this is done in a couple of hours on stage.
The sixth reason is the hope to open the ground for more tolerance. Simply by accepting that there are different styles one should be able to accept that all of them are bonsai art, but not necessarily for everybody’s liking. Colin Lewis sees a similarity with the appreciation of paintings28: “There are those art afficionados who prefer, for example, classical landscapes by painters such as Gainsborough and Constable. Others delight in impressionist works by Cezanne, perhaps, or Monet. Still others have a penchant for abstract, apparently meaningless Pollocks. But none of them would accuse the others' preferences of not being art, or not being paintings. Those accusations only come from people who don't truly understand art - any art.” It is perfectly acceptable to not like every bonsai style, but it is not to say that trees of a certain style are “not bonsai” or “not art”. The exclusion of new trends is a sign of insecurity of those who propose the exclusion.
What this proposal is not:
This classification is not as revolutionary as it may seem at first sight. The traditional, well known “styles” are just called forms now. They are all there and stay the same as bonsai enthusiasts know them (a few are added where they fit in logically). Their description or rules, which should be guidelines stay the same in the classical/neo-classical style. However, the very same principle form can also be used in a contemporary style, but with another general look. The difference in look comes from the application of  different (unwritten) rules for the same form.
The proposed classification is not meant to directly assess bonsai, but it can be used for it.  You can say that the tree has this and that style and this and that form. But this does not say anything about your judgment and it should not. You can certainly add your judgment and say what you like and what you don't like. You can say it clearer with the new classification. You can critique a tree with reference to the classification scheme in a more neutral way.
The scheme should not be used to rigidly follow a certain style and form to create a "good" bonsai. It was never good to just follow rules. For the artist the classification may be a way to start, to understand all the styles and rules and then do what he likes and forget about them again. For the beginner and the insecure it may be a refuge. A pattern to hold on to not to do anything wrong. While this can be very helpful in the beginning it is not the way to do art or even good craft.
This is not an attempt to change the way the art of bonsai is practiced or is viewed. It only serves to describe what is already happening and will happen in the future. Nobody is forced to like a certain style, it is only suggested to accept it’s existence. This classification should enable a better way of communicating what is going on. As Andy Rutledge points out29 that many enthusiasts see bonsai as a mostly artistic endeavor and want their trees to achieve some artistic aim and they should be judged accordingly. Others see bonsai as a tradition to be carried on in the traditional way, while still others see bonsai as a mostly horticultural endeavor with vague or no allegiance paid to what some regard as the “universally accepted” rules for designing the trees. Each of these approaches are valid for their proponents and for most of this discussion they are irrelevant anyway. It is not meant to tell them what to do. It is only meant to offer better means of communication for those who want it.
This proposed classification scheme is not necessarily for everyone. But even for beginners and intermediate bonsai enthusiasts it can be helpful to know something about other styles than the classical one. Even if one has decided to work in a certain style it can be helpful in viewing books, magazines, exhibits and virtual galleries in a different light. To learn to classify is in itself and education.
During the intense discussions about this subject on the Internet Bonsai Club30 some said “I really think that time and effort is better employed in learning the craft and improving the art.”31Or: “..What does spending time trying to nail down specific, new or “better” language or terminology standards have to do with working on trees? Nothing…” The best answer to this was given by Rick Choate: “Ah, but what about those who can do both at the same time?”
These terms, as new as they may seem to many bonsai enthusiasts are not an invention of the author. They are transferable to a degree, more or less, between different arts. The better-known or more universal we keep a concept of style, form etc., the more opportunity we have to communicate.

1 comment:

  1. Dated or not, it is not nearly as easy to find any account of changing styles of Bonsai as in just about any other art. Not long ago I heard there weren't any currents of Bonsai to consider, which seemed quite baffling [a 'static' art? the only one!?], particularly for one that has been traveling more then any other within living memory.