Bonsai art, Japan
It’s odd. Normally the idea of growing a tree is to make it as large as possible. Or, at least, allow its potential to fill the space available. It seems counterintuitive to intentionally try to stunt the development of a plant, to twist its branches and manipulate its growth in such a demented way.
Except in Japan it’s not a matter of ‘stunting’ it. There’s nothing ‘demented’ about it. This is art. This is bonsai.
For more than a thousand years, the Japanese have found beauty in manipulating the shape of a growing tree and limiting its size. The techniques of this particular branch of art and the history of bonsai are far too complicated for me to understand but I do appreciate that there is a great skill in a good bonsai artist. They use a variety of methods to mould the final shape – pruning the roots, wiring the branches, clamping the trunks, grafting on other plants and trimming the leaves. The hardest thing is to imagine the final outcome in their head and encourage the tree to grow that way.
Omiya Bonsai Art Museum
On my way up north on a trip from Tokyo I decided to take a leaf from the Japanese and stop in the city of Omiya to visit the Bonsai Art Museum to learn more. It’s the first public museum of its kind in the world celebrating this unique floral creativity. All around the museum are small bonsai nurseries because this is a traditional industry of this part of Japan.
There are five main characteristics I discovered about the bonsai. There’s much more to it than just making a small tree.
- Miniaturisation: OK, so the first point is just about making a small tree. But the key is to make it a size that will fit in one of the special bonsai pots, the decoration of which is in art in itself
- Proportion: The idea is to make it look as though it is a real tree, just smaller. Everything must be in proportion and the skill here is to not let anything grow faster or larger than the other parts
- Asymmetry: Like all good art, the immediate reaction of the eye is important. With bonsai, symmetry is discouraged because it invokes no great emotion. Good aesthetics should make the mind imagine and create for itself.
- Naturalism: There should be no trace of the artist left on the final bonsai tree. Although a lot has been manipulated to create the work, it should look as though it has happened completely naturally.
- Poignancy: This last point is the hardest to grasp but it goes to the root of bonsai art. Just like the cherry blossoms that are so famous in Japan, people like to find an ephemeral quality in these trees. The idea is to make people aware of the transiency of life and nature, to have empathy with imperfection. This is what makes a great artwork.
The Bonsai Art Museum in Omiya is divided into two parts. The galleries inside go through some of these techniques and show you the history of the art. There are also exhibits about the pots of the ways the trees can be displayed. Outside is a garden with about 40 examples of bonsai trees. Unfortunately it was a pretty wet and miserable day when I went, otherwise it would have been a nice place to have sat and contemplated things. You know, ephemeral things like transiency and imperfection and those bonsai buzz words I mentioned earlier.
After all, it’s the small things in life that matter.