Friday, May 29, 2015

Is bonsai an art?

Some members of the bonsai community seem to be obsessed with this question. Perhaps, we all have some of that ‘I-wanna-be-an-artist’ syndrome and the answer is invariably “yes”. However, to answer this question we need to define what bonsai is. The contemporary meaning of the word is much broader than it used to be and it can mean either a material object or a process aimed to create it.

As a material object bonsai can manifest itself in countless degrees of quality (see images above). At one end of the ‘bonsai spectrum’ we have plant cuttings grown in slip-cast bonsai pots offered for sale at a local garden center. At the other end of the same spectrum we have an awe-inspiring tree cultivated as bonsai for centuries, planted in an antique container and displayed at a prestigious exhibition. Both of these things and everything in between is considered to be bonsai by our modern society.

As a process bonsai can be many things too. To some it is a sophisticated horticultural practice, to others it is an artistic pursuit. Some see it as a meditational activity, others as a commercial enterprise. It can be a fashionable plaything for the wealthy and an immersing pastime for common folk.

Is bonsai an art? Can we really ask this question about bonsai phenomenon as a whole? A meaningful answer can be given only on examining a specific work of art, in this case an individual bonsai tree and the process that led to its creation. But even then, we get no definite answer as the public opinion about artistic merits of a specific bonsai tree is ever subjective. Some would consider it art while others would not. The answer to this question is unique to each observer and each bonsai tree, and all we can say is: “Bonsai can be art”.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chinese precursors of Japanese stone lanterns

Stone lanterns are a recurring topic in my blog (see Here, I would like to share a few observations and speculations prompted by my last year’s trip to China. Seeing various old or traditional objects made me think of a possible evolutionary line that terminated in contemporary Japanese stone lantern. It is well known that the earliest examples of pedestal lanterns in Japan were bronze and that they partly owe their origin to the hanging and free-standing counterparts made of the same material. However, looking at traditional ceremonial vessels and incense burners in China made me think that it all could have started with a humble cook-pot (see the progression of images above). Images above show left to right: ding food vessel (11th century BC, China), temple incense burner (Shanghai), roofed temple incense burner (Shanghai), movable stone lantern (Kyoto). 

The left image below shows an elaborate temple incense burner in Shanghai. The image on the right shows an incense burner in Kamakura. They both share common features yet the Japanese counterpart is more reminiscent of the Japanese stone lantern.

Below are a few images of pedestal bronze lanterns I photographed in Nara, Kyoto and Kamakura. These are somewhat less commonly seen in Japan. The leftmost image shows the oldest extant pedestal lantern in Japan (8th century), which has been designated the rank of national treasure (see my post about Todai-ji temple here

Back to China now. During my travels there I observed a number of traditional architectural and interior design features which bare certain similarities with the Japanese lanterns and could have been incorporated into their design. Images below show a few examples.

The Forbidden Palace in Beijing had stone incense burners that were remarkably similar to Japanese stone lanterns, but I am not sure if they predate the wide spread popularity of stone lanterns in the 17th century Japan. Apparently, the oldest stone lantern in Japan dates back to the 8th century. The two leftmost images below show stone incense burners at the Forbidden Palace, while the two rightmost images show Japanese stone lanterns in Kyoto temples.

To conclude this post, let’s see more stone lanterns. Below are images of some lanterns in Kamakura.

Below, more stone lanterns from Tokyo.

Finally, a bunch of lanterns from Kyoto, Nara and … Can you pick the odd one out? The image in the bottom left corner shows a modern day street light in Shanghai. Its design is inspired by the Japanese stone lanterns yet it retains a number of distinctly Chinese features.

You can also see images of stone lanterns from Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa here:

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Bonsai pot precursors at the Shanghai Museum – Part II

The origin of a humble bonsai pot is well known and my last year’s visit to Shanghai Museum allowed me to see some of its history in flesh. This post is about ancient Chinese bronzes that influenced the form of the contemporary bonsai pot. The image below shows a ‘pan’ water vessel that is nearly three thousand years old. This pan is shallow, lipped and footed, just like many bonsai pots of today. By the way, the word ‘pan’ (//) is a part of such familiar to us words as pen-jing and bon-sai. Neolithic precursors of pan were made of earthenware and the latest archeological finds from Xianren Cave in China indicate earthenware that is twenty thousand years old!

Below are images of a few bronze vessels meant for food and wine. They were made millennia ago, but their forms bear many features of a modern bonsai pot.

To read my earlier post about bonsai pot precursors see