chewing ideas down to stubble, then moving on…

Bonsai: Illusion or Impression of Ancient Trees?

Posted by Jason on November 26, 2008

I’ve read in many books, internet articles, and forum postings that the main idea of bonsai is to create an illusion of an ancient tree. I know that bonsai is not scale modeling, in that it really would be impossible to reduce the leaf-size to be proportionate with the tree. If you have a tree that normal reaches 50 feet tall, and has 1 inch needles, by the time you reduced the tree to say 1 foot tall, each needle would be 1/50 inch and nearly impossible to see and work on. So I get that, and now you do, too.

My discussion is this: illusion or impression? By saying that bonsai creates an illusion of an old tree, I feel that we are trying to trick our viewers, via magic or drugs or good horticulture, into truly thinking that are trees are much older than they may or may not be. Some bonsai are in fact several hundreds of years old. Does that mean that they are not creating an illusion anymore? 

I prefer to say that our bonsai must give the impression of a wise old tree. The idea is to make the viewer feel the same way viewing a bonsai as he/she would when viewing a true ancient tree. The art side of bonsai must have a communication with the viewer. This communication is the response that occurs when someone sees our trees. I don’t think it can ever be, “Wow, that is a giant old tree or my name is Mickey Mouse!” That would be the response to an illusion. Our goal should be for viewers to think/say, “Wow, that reminds me of those trees in the Sierra Nevadas.” The difference is that one evokes a belief that our trees are really giant and old, whereas the other evokes a feeling similar to the feelings around the real thing.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs and being a semantic stick in the mud, but it really bugs me when people say bonsai artists should aim to create the illusion of an ancient tree. I honestly think that we should strive for a representation that leaves viewers with an emotional impression of that which we are representing. Even if English-speaking bonsai artists have been using the word “illusion” for years and years, “impression” is just a way more accurate word for my tastes. Could it be that a translation from Japanese brought us the not-quite-as-accurate word? It could be…but that would require me or someone else really doing more than just grazing on this topic. Furthermore, even if this bad translation idea proved true, I’m pretty sure that most bonsai-ists would keep on using “illusion” instead of “impression.” I probably would, too!


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