Becoming a better bonsai "viewer"
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Author:  Jason D. Lattier [ Sun Apr 17, 2005 11:51 am ]
Post subject:  Becoming a better bonsai "viewer"

This is an open thread to anyone who, like myself, would like to become a better viewer and interpreter of bonsai, which can only serve to make our own bonsai design better. I remember reading a while back about the differences in the Japanese language and other languages and how they relate to interpreting bonsai. I believe it might have been Mr. Rutledge's book or one of his threads where he touched on this topic. If I remember correctly, the shapes and styles used in bonsai have an entirely different and definitive meaning because of the importance of shapes and styles used in their word characters. Therefore, a Japanese person viewing a Japanese bonsai might have a different interpretation of the bonsai tree than someone who does not understand the meaning of shapes/styles in Japanese. I find this a very interesting subject, and would like anyone with better knowledge on this topic to expand on it further. Any other ideas about becoming better at viewing bonsai are welcome as well. Thanks.
All the best,
Jason D. Latter

Author:  Charles Bevan [ Sun Apr 17, 2005 8:33 pm ]
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Peter Aradi wrote something similar on Internet Bonsai Club's Suiseki Gallery. I found his comments quite intriguing:
1. Translation is an art, not science. While growing up in Hungary, I was told that each language learned is the equalient of a university degree. Well, while it is true, that was difficult enough when the languages belonged to the same general cultural tradition. When I was learning Japanese, more than four decades ago, I found that along with the language I had to learn a new culture as well. I should really say "try" to learn the culture, because I am still a beginning student of it.
2.When tried to understand the Chinese culture, I ran into even more problems because while Japanese is imprecise as a language, Chinese is much more imprecise and requires a true undertsanding of the culture, a task very few can accomplish in a single lifetime. So what we think about the East Asian arts and crafts are more like second or third hand impressions rather than a true understanding. I am convinced that one can not understand either of these two cultures without at least an elementary training in caligraphy and brush painting.
3. Having said that, I believe that we need to learn all we can. For example if we like viewing stones, we should learn all the rules of Japanese stone appreciation, Chinese stone aesthtics, Korean and other variations of each, and learn and master them thoroughly. Once we did our best, it is time to stop and sit back. It is time to say forget all the intelelctualization, the rules, the labels, the rationalization; let's open our minds and hearts and fully experience the stone as is without any preconceived notion. That state is called "beginner's mind" in Zen Buddhism. There are countless possibilities in an open or beginner's mind. There is only one in an expert's mind.
4. The downside is that it takes many years of study, training and meditation to develop the "beginner's mind." It takes many years to unlearn our biases and prejudices. It also takes courage to say "I understand this (whatever this is, for example Chinese rain flower pebbles), but I don't like them!"

(Note: Text in bold was made bold for this discussion, and was not done this way in Peter's original post.)

Author:  Peter Aradi [ Mon Apr 18, 2005 7:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Becoming a better bonsai "viewer"

Jason, et. all.:
Since Charles quoted me in the context of this thread, I would like to add the following. Brush writing is VERY time consuming and a VERY painful process. Few master it unless "have to."
Fortunately in China and Japan there is no real differentiation between writing and painting with a brush; the same Chinese character describes both and the same implements are used in both. I am a firm believer that if you are interested in the East Asian aesthetics of viewing stones and classic Japanese bonsai than a study of Southern style Chinese brush painting is a great short cut. A fascinating textbook of Chinese brush painting recommends that a student should spend 40% of his time studying paintings of the old masters, 30% of the time practicing calligraphy and 30% of the time practicing brush painting.
I further believe that Chinese black and white landscape painting contains the artistic essence of bonsai and stone appreciation.
I very highly recommend the following books as a crash course and listed them in order of importance:
Wang Yao-t'ing: Looking at Chinese Painting.
Jerome Silbergeld: Chinese Painting Style - Media, Methods and Principles of Form.
Van Briessen: The Way of the Brush.
Sherman E. Lee: Chinese Landscape Painting.
Any of James Cahill's books, especially "Three alternative histories if Chinese painting."
And many sections of Mai-mai Sze's The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting.
I am sure many will disagree with my point of view, but I strongly believe that "I row my boat, you row yours."

Author:  Carl Bergstrom [ Mon Apr 18, 2005 8:47 pm ]
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Thanks for the reading list. I've spent a fair bit of time reading The Mustard Seed Garden Manual, but I didn't know where to turn next. Thus I greatly appreciate your suggestions.
Best wishes,

Author:  Charles Bevan [ Mon Apr 18, 2005 9:00 pm ]
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Thank you for commenting on this thread. I had hoped the quote I added would spark your interest and influence you to divulge further into this topic. I will have to take a look at the books you recommend.
Best wishes,

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue Apr 19, 2005 11:03 am ]
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I've read Van Briessen's Way of the Brush, (and the MSG Manual as well) a few years ago, it helped me a lot to understand the nature of the rules in bonsai and put them in the proper perspective. I completely agree with Peter that if one is not familiar with these oriental artforms, one cannot appreciate traditional bonsai in the correct context due to the lack of understanding of the aesthetics behind it. I realized this instinctively a long time ago and there were years when I've spent more time studying Chinese painting and Japanese woodblock printing than studying bonsai.
I have several of Cahill's books as well they are great reading material, thanks Peter for the comprehensive list.

Author:  Jason D. Lattier [ Thu Apr 21, 2005 5:15 pm ]
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Thanks for all the responses, I knew this would be a topic that many of us are interested in. Thanks also to Peter for the great information and book list. A few thoughts after reading all the responses: After reading a bit on the subject I've noticed that the western perspective when viewing bonsai is completely different from the Eastern. (Due to a lack of word characters and associated meanings perhaps?) However, I believe there must be asthetic elements which transcend culture. Back when I was just starting to appreciated bonsai, I could look at one bonsai and enjoy it much more than any other without knowing why. This was especially true at bonsai shows where I could view the trees up close. Come to find out, the one's which impressed me the most were the "classical" or "traditional" bonsai before I even knew what these terms meant. That has always fascinated me how someone who knew nothing about bonsai could be drawn to one type of styling over another. Maybe I'm reading to much into it, though.
Another thought I had while reading the threads is how much work it takes to get to where one can see only "one image" when looking at material, as opposed to the "beginners mind" which sees many possibilites. There is truly no bonsai "hobby." I would expand that to say that there is no true artistic endeavor that is easily mastered. (I'm sure Christo and Jean-Claude would disagree ;o). ) I couldn't even learn Spanish after 6 years of study in school, so I guess I'm out of luck when it comes to learning traditional Eastern bonsai. Anyway, I guess I'll try to keep living my life with my ears open more than my mouth, and maybe I'll learn something along the way. Thanks for all the help guys.
All the best,
Jason D. Lattier

Author:  Joanie Berkwitz [ Thu Jun 30, 2005 11:00 pm ]
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The other day I was sculpting a little pin with the Japanese characters for "bon" and "sai". It struck me that the brush strokes themselves were strangely reminiscent of bonsai, the angles and shapes were haunting when viewed in that regard. So this thread really struck a chord.
So, is it reasonable to say that Classical Roman lettering, columns, and artwork "speak" to the educated Western viewer in subliminal ways; Mayan writing, architecture, and artwork "speak" differently to one who knows how to look; Germanic Blackletter and the accompanying architecture and artwork also have feelings and interpretations associated with them? The lettering reflects the philosophy and world view of the culture?
Wow. That's a lot to wrap your mind around.
We certainly use lettering to reflect our intent and inflection. There is stern lettering and friendly, official and casual, gaudy and plain. Does it speak to more than our surface familiarity? (In other words, are we programmed by contact with lettering, to expect certain intents with certain lettering styles, or is it even deeper?)

Author:  Andrew Loosli [ Fri Jul 01, 2005 7:55 am ]
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since I work with Typography quite often, these questions concern me. However, I can only speak about 'latin' lettering.
When you are creating a company logo or use handwritten letters as design elements, the question will always be if the viewer can see what letter there is: Will he see the reduced 'G' or will he see a 'C' instead?
Then there is a deep going accomodation to what graphists call rhythm. A good typographer will keep care all spaces between letters are about equal. You do not have to be a pro to see the big holes bad software produces between 'V' and 'i' as example. To repair it is work, however. 'Spacing' the versal letters of a widely set roman antiqua is in fact a mastership.
I have a little collection of faults. As example, there is a photography of a churchbell. There you almost always find some text on, made from wax letters being fixed on the model. I show this photography sometimes and ask people, if there is something strange about it. Almost all see after some time, that a little 's' looks different. Well - it was fixed head down and so it is out of balance - the lower part of an 's' is always a little bigger that the upper part, although they seem equal.
Conscient action (and hard work - look at childern!) first, writing and reading in the course of a lifetime becomes a reflex almost. You 'get the feeling' of it. But only there where you are. It would never accept to do a russian company logo. I do not have the feeling for cyrillic letters. And these are still very close to latin letters. And both are normed, technical letter systems, not 'pictures', what the chinese letters originally are. So, I can somehow fancy how delicate japanese brush-writing must be.

Author:  Joanie Berkwitz [ Fri Jul 01, 2005 11:38 am ]
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Andrew, thank you, that was very interesting. You would know a lot about lettering styles and positions! When I took calligraphy, many years ago, we learned a lot about spacing in hand lettering. We also learned (and this may not be true, but the teacher said that it was) that if the top line of your small letters was even, the bottoms of the letters could be slightly uneven and no one would notice.
You may not be familiar with the Russian lettering, as such, but if the Russian lettering is strongly vertical and with very sharp edges/corners, with a bold line to form the letters, do they perceive that as "stern"? Are the lighter, softer, more flowing lines "friendly"? Does the Russian lettering have echos in their architecture and art?
Here's another way of looking at it.... if you were given examples of the lettering, architecture, and art of four or five cultures that you are unfamiliar with, could you match them up? Could you find the echos in each component that reflects the other components?

Author:  Andrew Loosli [ Sat Jul 02, 2005 6:59 am ]
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It will take a lot of time to really think that through. I have some hints from my limited knowledge about typography, that may be clues to you, too.
It is in fact astonishing to learn about similarities in the history of letters and other art forms. Renaissance letters are (from here on I am using my personal, subjective terms to describe) severe, clear, they aim to have an ideal form. Barock brings something new and you will see the idea of 'bar-occo' easily. The famous Giambattista Bodoni went a step forward: He was seeking to design letters that could be scratched into copperplates, the state-of-the-art printing technology of his days. This work had to be done as mirror-image. The former letters with their clear 'direction' from left to right (a result from handwriting) were very confusing to be reproduced like that, so he designed more or less symmetric letters. At the same time they are fitting the contemporary architecture. And so it goes on and on. A 'Schwabacher' reflects architectural ideas of that time and for sure the name 'Futura' has something to do with italian 'futurismo'. Bauhaus had its echo in typography and today the 'digitalism' produces equivalent letters.
There is just one thing I do not know: Which is the chicken, which is the egg? When have technical reasons formed letters, when was it the search for beauty? The famous quote 'form follows function' shows, how complex this can be. In another place there is a discussion, if traditional forms of appletrees could be a base for 'new' bonsai styles. The old man living across my place, who has a very beautiful old applegarden once said to me about pruning: 'When a tree looks good, it will also bring a lot of fruit'. 'Looking good' means 'known to be fruitbringing'. But to him, it is beauty, too.

Author:  Ron Sudiono [ Tue Sep 13, 2005 2:49 am ]
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I don?t agree that you have to study Chinese or Japanese calligraphy or brush writing to understand bonsai shapes and forms. On the other hand, most art people in the east performs different artforms at one (life) time. The bonsaiist who paints, who writes poets, who practise Tai Chi, etc. If I analyse eastern calligraphy, I can say that it includes all shapes, and all possible connections between them. There are may kinds of strokes as results of various hand/palm positions and movements. Infinite numbers of weights contributions during the movements is something else that I don?t find in western calligraphy as well. This fact is related to the shapes and character of a flexible brush compared to that of a rigid pen. So, it maybe helpful to do calligraphy, but it is not necessary for a bonsaiist to do this. By the way, in the movie HERO, one is told that the heart of sword fighting lies in calligraphy as well.

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