2. The Art of Bonsai

The Art of Bonsai

The object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree

The quote above is from John Yoshio Naka (1914-2004) master bonsai cultivator. Bonsai is the art of growing miniature trees and shrubs in decorative pots and a good bonsai is one that represents a real tree. Some people describe bonsai as the haiku of the tree world. The two words bon-sai mean a potted tree but bonsai are not just that as a bonsai is an exact replica of a natural tree in miniature form. Size and age are less important than the visual impact on the person looking at the tree, “but it is important to remember that in bonsai one is creating an image or an illusion” (P. Chan 1999:11). The art of bonsai has its origins in China – the Chinese being the first to practise the cultivation of trees and shrubs in ceramic flower pots. In relating the historical origins of Bonsai, Peter Chan (1999) refers to the fact that the Chinese have a very long tradition of gardening, the earliest of them being traced back to the Shang Dynasty (sixteenth to eleventh centuries BC). The gardens of the emperors were intended to be symbols of the empire in microcosm and designed in such a way that their miniature hills, mountains (having particular symbolic significance), streams and lakes symbolized their real counterparts. The mountains provided inspiration for scholars, who included poets and artists and these scholars, who were known as ‘literati’, exerted a profound influence on Chinese art and bonsai in particular (P. Chan 1999:21). The literati were essentially calligraphers, being literary scholars first and foremost, and their style of depicting trees quickly influenced the development of bonsai that bore little resemblance to trees seen in real life. “They are artistic impressions of trees, illusions if you like! This is precisely what bonsai is about” (ibid p. 22).

The miniature trees depicted in Chinese scroll paintings dating back to around AD600 were very similar to Chinese bonsai grown today. Bonsai gradually spread to other parts of the Orient and had gained a foothold in Japan by the 11th or 12th Century, being introduced by Chinese Buddhist monks.

(Katsushika Hokusai, ‘The Talisman’ (Mayoke), a colour woodblock print. © the Trustees of the British Museum)

Hokusai Bonsai Grower (1803) Woodblock Print

There is quite a difference between Chinese and Japanese styles of bonsai, the Japanese style being more naturalistic and with greater attention being paid to detail and overall presentation.

I lay no claim to knowledge of the art of Bonsai but I have been intrigued by the miniature perfection of these ‘natural’ sculptural replicas. for a long time.  Information on types of Bonsai trees can be found here   There’s a part of me that thinks it’s cruel to stunt their growth in this way; yet we prune trees and plants don’t we, and Peter Chan also points out that the fact that bonsai live to a great old age suggests they receive better treatment and care than their counterparts in the wild. At the beginning of Autumn last year my husband took up an interest in Bonsai as a hobby and I kept thinking I should photograph some of them which is why they suddenly came into my mind when talking with my tutor about Assignment 4. At the beginning of November last year I set up lights indoors and photographed some.

I certainly captured their shapes but didn’t feel entirely satisfied with them. The lighting could certainly be improved in another session. I had to spend quite a while ensuring the background sheet edited as an overall white – I was surprised how many YouTube videos there are explaining how to achieve this. Apart from that the aesthetic didn’t seem right – they looked more like catalogue images. The sun came out the next day and, as there was little wind, I decided to install the white backdrop outdoors and use my Polaroid 600 camera.

There was something about these that very much appealed to me even though they looked slightly wonky and less ‘real’. I decided to handwrite captions in pencil, with just the name of the tree and date photographed; scanned them and then posted one a day on my Instagram account. They gained some very positive comments which was pleasing. My handwriting of captions can certainly be improved – it’s hard to keep it straight when there isn’t a line to write on. I could use a ruler but I’ve found in the past that that cuts off the bottom of strokes and the joining by hand looks somehow artificial. I’ve now booked myself onto a half day workshop on Calligraphy later this month.


I began to puzzle “Why Bonsai, why polaroid (which is a revived older form of analogue yet instant photography), how does this fit into not only landscape but as a concurrent project with that of the virtual reality of Second Life”?    All of these questions given that the brief for Assignment 4 is to develop a project around the theme of identity within the current digital climate.

  • Why Bonsai? Their form, structure and miniature perfection have engaged artists for Centuries. The art is enduring so I’m part of a long line.
  • Why Polaroid? Firstly, having looked through the books I have on Hokusai I’ve now realised that, in many respects, Polaroid prints remind me of wood block prints – both have depth despite their flatness – the one through etching and the other through the way the emulsion works. I wrote about this earlier in this Module here https://catherinebanksdiac.wordpress.com/2016/07/06/project-2-through-a-digital-lens/   when looking again at Jeff Wall’s work and comparing it with that of Hokusai. Secondly, a bonsai tree is both a miniature replica and a living tree itself whilst being unique in that it shows the mark of an individual creator and that links it with a polaroid image which is also,  …a unique object, a tiny ‘sculpture’, an intersection between photography and fine art; not ephemeral but real and tangible. In contrast to the thousands of digital pictures taken each minute, a Polaroid remains special, each one exuding an innate sense of trust and intimacy. (R. Adam (2017:07)
  • The link with Landscape? A bonsai is a living tree, albeit a miniature one and a part of the natural environment. It has been shaped by the hand of man, as has the ‘landscape’ we inhabit and mould for our own purposes. I’ll be writing more about my relationship with landscape in a separate post.
  • The link with ‘virtual reality’? I’ve given considerable thought to this. For me this is connected with photography, indexicality, replication and, I had to admit, with Jean Baudrillard’s theory regarding Simulacra and Simulation’. I could no longer avoid having to think more deeply on this. I had been avoiding it because I kept wanting to argue with Baudrillard yet the thought of writing about this was exhausting in prospect. Again, I’ll be writing on this.



Adam, R (2017) Polaroid: The Missing Manual. London: Thames & Hudson
Chan, P (1999) Bonsai: The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees. London: Chancellor Press
Cark, T (Ed) (2017 Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave London: Thames & Hudson