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 Post subject: What Front?
PostPosted: Mon Apr 28, 2008 11:14 pm 
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What Front?
ac_008
by Russell Marchant



A great deal of conversation has been generated recently on the topic of a bonsai's front. This conversation (or perhaps "debate" is the more appropriate label) is normally centered on the following discussion points:

  • Do trees in nature, the three-dimensional objects we so passionately attempt to emulate, actually have "fronts"?
  • Is our goal, when creating a piece of "living sculpture" to create a three-dimensional object and then enhance its key attributes or design features by displaying it from a single vantage point?
  • Is the whole process of assigning a single angle of view to a three-dimensional object somewhat of an exercise in paradox?


Before we get any deeper in this it might be a good idea to define what is commonly referred to as the "front." A bonsai's front is a single, isolated viewing angle. It centers on a point about halfway up the trunk and serves to highlight the complete composition as advantageously as possible.

Based on this previous definition, I feel the answer to each of the earlier questions is a definite yes.

Do trees in nature, the three-dimensional objects we so passionately attempt to emulate, actually have "fronts"? My knee-jerk response to this question is obviously, no. Trees do not have a "front" (or a back, or sides) anymore than stones or plants or any other natural object does. It is only when an object is capable of movement, or more specifically forward-movement, that we make a decision to label one area (the forward moving section) "the front" and the other area the rear or back. It is interesting, however, to think about the way we choose to view an object we find compelling; a solitary tree in a meadow, a flower, or a boulder on the beach. Due to forces unknown to us, we often take time to circle the object of interest (or to turn it in our hand if it's small enough, like a pebble in a stream) until we discover that single view that encapsulates what we find most interesting or appealing. We use this very personal discovery process to locate and define that view of an object that contains the most meaning for us as observers– the object's "front".

Is our goal, in creating a piece of "living sculpture" to create a three-dimensional object and then enhance its key attributes or design features by displaying it from a single vantage point? I feel "… enhance its key attributes or design features" is the key here. When we designate a small portion of a bonsai as the front, we instill within it a deep purpose or meaning. We are, in effect, assigning this area of a bonsai "the responsibility" to enhance all the positive features of that particular tree and the species to which it belongs.

In many ways selecting a front for a bonsai employs the same logic as selecting a seat at a baseball game. Any spectator knows that he or she will be able to "see the game" regardless where they choose to sit in a stadium. However, if given the choice of a seat behind home plate or one in the "nose-bleed seats" in right field, most folks would choose to be located down near the field and close to the action. And the reasoning here is simple; sitting behind home plate provides a baseball fan the optimal location for viewing the variety of actions and activities underway. Sitting "close to the action" provides the viewer the opportunity to notice subtle details lost to the majority of fans at the game. It also provides the spectator a broad enough range of viewing to ensure the "game on the field" can be comprehended in its entirety.

When you create a bonsai you have several design elements, depending on the genus and species to consider. A crab apple (genus Malus) requires the bonsai designer to ponder the likelihood of spring flowers, disproportionately large leaves, and mid to late seasonal fruit. When you work on a juniper (genus Juniperus) it's a twisting trunk, tufts of foliage, and possible areas for jin and shari that require your attention. As Roy Nagatoshi stated during a recent demonstration hosted by our club, "All the key design elements of the tree should be visible from the front." Or in the terms of my viewing a baseball game metaphor, the challenge is to locate that section of the tree that allows the viewer the opportunity to get "close to the action" while not obstructing their "view of the entire field".

Is the whole process of assigning a single angle of view to a three-dimensional object somewhat of an exercise in paradox? I believe we as intelligent, creative beings are engaged in an ongoing process (consciously or unconsciously) to discover, highlight, and assign, value in the things we come into contact with. If provided the opportunity to travel to Florence, to view Michelangelo's masterpiece, David, I have no doubt I would gaze at it in unbelievable awe. And, after recovering from the magnitude and initial shock of viewing such a beautiful and inspiring object, I would walk around it slowly to absorb each and every curve and polished surface. That is what we do when confronted by objects of power, of beauty and of grace, like a beautiful sculpture or a bonsai designed and maintained by a master. We examine it. We embrace it. We discover in its shape, form, and texture, the essence of its detail and the beauty of its completeness. We push ourselves to highlight its value, not in monetary terms, but in highly personal measures of merit, beauty, and esteem.

And where does this discovery process take place? It happens where the art object stops being a collection of fascinating, isolated parts, and becomes whole. It happens where we clearly see the sum of the parts, not a tree and pot any longer, but a single, distinct and solitary item. It happens when we stop to view a bonsai from the single best position, from it's front.


Summary

Sculpture, or three-dimensional art, has length, width and depth. It is meant to be viewed from all sides, from different angles, and is normally displayed in a manner that allows the viewer to take full benefit of its added dimension. When viewing a sculpture like Michelangelo's David, or a "living sculpture" by the late Saburo Kato, we are often invited (or expected) to wander around it and to gaze at each area of interest. But from what vantage point does the entire composition "come together"? Where does the artist expect us to position ourselves to embrace the whole of their design? We are expected to move ourselves to the one place that provides (for us) the most clear and non-obstructed view of all the design elements – the front.


Bob King scored: 8
"Is the search for the "front" a process of finding the order of design bonsai from chaos? Is it the grounding of the design?"

Pat Luck Morris scored: 8
"Some photos or illustrations would help."

Walter Pall scored: 7
"Images should have been essential for this article. Well put thoughts. The judge clearly does not agree to all of them."

Average score of all judges: 7.66


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