A massive barrel of laugh from the past
By Peter Warren
A discussion of solitude, loneliness and the importance of understanding death when looking at the art of living trees.
I have been raking through my old hard drives looking for pictures and stuff for the website renewal that I gave up on and asked someone else to do, and I found this file. I wrote it in November 2007. Thankfully I never published it anywhere (I don’t think). I think I must have been a bit miserable at the time.
The Beauty of Solitude
If one were to ask most Western Bonsai enthusiasts to name the top three Japanese professionals then the chances are they would name Kunio Kobayashi, Masahiko Kimura and Shinji Suzuki. All three have similar things in common, multiple award winners, superb technicians and visionary artists. Another less obvious bond links these three contemporary greats together; suffering. Each man has gone through painful difficulties in their personal lives, some are well known and publicized, others not so. This is not the place to discuss the detail of their sufferance but it gives us an insight into the Bonsai aesthetic and what makes their trees stand out from the crowd. All three are first generation Bonsai artists, self made men, driven by a burning passion inside which is fuelled by pain, deprivation and in many ways loneliness.
Asking the question “Where do we draw the line between a tree in a pot and a bonsai?”, leads us into a discourse regarding, beauty, aesthetics and the very nature of life itself. Traditional Western aesthetics could be described as the combination of many to create an exquisite whole, layer upon layer of oil paint on a canvas, a vase full of blooms creating a medley of colour and fragrance. It draws us in, inviting us to be part of the landscape, making us feel warm and alive. Diametrically opposed to this is one aspect of the Japanese aesthetic and one which is of absolute importance in creating meaningful bonsai. We must remove all that is unnecessary, stripping away layer after layer until we are left with the essence of the subject. A single flower in a vase, a seventeen syllable poem or a simple cup of tea. Unlike Western gardening, Bonsai comes not from what we add, but what is taken away.
Consider the literati style of tree, the most distilled form of this concept in bonsai. The name, bunjin, is taken from the literati class of scholars, painters and poets; many of whom led ascetic lifestyles and underwent self inflicted hardships. Inspiration for their work came from their suffering; Nanga pictures were often melancholic and yearned for life outside of the restrictive Shogunate which controlled Japan at the time. They expressed the essence of the severe side of nature rather than depicting nature in a realist sense. The ideal image of a literati style tree can be found in the paintings of Ike no Taiga and Yosa Buson who were inspired by the poetry of Matsuo Basho, arguably the father of modern haiku and throughout whose canon of work runs a deep theme of loneliness and isolation; on the passing of the cherry blossoms and upon departure on a pilgrimage he wrote,
“With spring leaving
The birds cry out regret, the fish
Have tears in their eyes.”
The ideal literati tree should create a feeling of solitude in the viewer. Rather than being welcomed into the image and feeling warm, it should make us feel cold and hungry, just as the tree feels, having grown in a harsh environment battling against the elements and deprived of fertile soil. It should not make us unhappy or uncomfortable, solitude should not be confused with such negative feelings; solitude, a personal choice as opposed to the imposition of loneliness is, by implication incredibly liberating. It is an escape from the ties that bind and the pressures that restrict. When viewing the perfect tree we stand alone, like the bunjin centuries before us, on a distant mountainside, far from the madding crowd, free from society and most importantly free from ego.
The last statement implies a high level of empathetic understanding in the viewer; without a personal appreciation of suffering it is almost impossible to transpose oneself to the same place that the artist seeks to represent. In classical terms this is pathos at its most intense level, by observing a tree which appears to have existed on the knife edge between life and death we are made aware of the transience of nature and the fragility of life. Only those who have a personal relationship with death can truly appreciate life, without knowledge of the dark there is no light. A key theme of bonsai is the cyclical relationship between life and death, rebirth and regrowth, one which recurs throughout Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, particularly in one area which the West has an unhealthy obsession with, the Samurai. In focusing upon the supposed fierce loyalty and barbarity of the warrior class we fail to appreciate that many had a serene acceptance of the ephemeral nature of the universe, an understanding of the profundity of life and conversely, the inevitability of death.
Acceptance of sadness is an alien concept in modern society where we are told it is our inalienable right to pursue happiness; sadness does not sell yet it pervades our culture and provides a driving force for many artists in other fields. Composer Benjamin Britten puts it perfectly, “It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and the everlasting beauty of monotony”
Many Bonsai artists both in Japan and the West, including myself, struggle to identify this concept in their creations because of our difficulty in accepting death and the surrendering the self. Only through introspection on the nature of life and a move away from reason and the head can we truly move to a new level of Bonsai, particularly in the logic obsessed West. The question we must ask ourselves is how can reflect our experience and understanding of death in the unique living art form of Bonsai?
Thank god I have cheered up a little bit since then. Still it is all true…