The 5th US National Bonsai Exhibition’s Finest Creative Display and Hokusai, the Iconic Japanese Print Artist

You might not have heard of the artist, Hokusai (1740-1849), but you might recognize the image of his most famous woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”, which is perhaps one of the best recognized icons of Japanese art work.

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Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagaw”

What does a Hokusai print have in common with bonsai? Apparently none! Bonsai was called hachinoki at his time, so he probably had never even heard of the word, bonsai. Yet, when I saw two bonsai displays, one in last year’s Artisans Cup, and the other in the recent 5th US National Bonsai Exhibition, Hokusai popped up in my mind.

This is Creighton Bostrom’s Finest Creative Award display at the 5th US National show. The semi-cascade Juniperus procumbens nana, planted in a “kurama” pot, is positioned precariously within a giant laminated wooden wave.

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Michael Levin of Bonsai West looking at the “Wave” or the forest?

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‘The Wave”, cropped from the above photo. You can find better image of this display in Bonsai Empire’s video of the exhibition.

Some people saw a bonsai tree, some saw a giant woodwork. What I saw reminded me of Hokusai’s Great Wave. I do not know what Creighton Bostrom tried to convey in this display. May be it’s a tribute to Hokusai because artist often pays homage to old masters by creating similar piece in his/her own medium, in this case, using bonsai display as a medium. May be he was inspired by the 2011 devastating tsunami in Japan? Many of us know, Isao Omachi, one of the young Japanese bonsai masters, lost all of his bonsai in the tsunami, literally they were swept away by the Great Wave. May be, and most likely, none of the above.

Now back to the question of what does a Hokusai print have in common with bonsai; I did say apparently none, but stretching my imagination a little bit and combining it with my science training, his “Great Wave” and bonsai do share something in common – fractal mathematics!

Look at the details of the “Great Wave”, we see the waves crashing down on the boats with exaggerated gnarly spooky fingers (Halloween is almost here). Each group of these “fingers” replicates itself throughout the waves. In fractal mathematics, replications of an elemental motif is called self-similarity.

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When we create bonsai we want branch ramifications. Each section of the ramified branch is replicated throughout the tree, they look like out-stretch fingers. There is an uncanny resemblance between bonsai ramifications and the Great Waves’ “fingers”. So branch ramification has a self-similarity property too!

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Branch ramification of a Tiger Bark Ficus I photographed at the 4th Taiwan Han Feng Show in 2008.

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This figure is often quoted in fractal, a single line branches into a Y shape which is replicated as branching continues. This is exactly what is taught in bonsai for creating branch ramifications.

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This is another Hokusai print of the same series, “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji”. Note the branching pattern of old lava flow marks.

We are familiar with the relationships between bonsai and the Golden Ratio, and the Fibonacci numbers because those ratios describe proportionality of all things that are beautiful in nature. So is fractal, it describes replicating elemental features that made up undulating mountain ranges, cloud formation, coastlines etc.

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David De Groot’s book cover has a beautiful Five-Needle Pine superimposed on a Golden Ratio diagram.

Next tim add fractal’s self-similarity to our bonsai language next time you go gaga over a well ramified tree, like the golden ratio, it too describes beauties in nature already ingrained in our head without us knowing it.

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Another highly ramified Ficus microcarpa at Taiwan’s 2008 Han Feng show.

Imagine Hokusai’s Great Wave without those replicating “fingers”, it would be boring and would simply fade into obscurity. Imagine a bonsai without ramifications, we would just pooh-pooh it away. Self-similarity of certain key elements, the “fingers”, made the Hokusai print memorable; and the repeating Y-shape branching makes a bonsai impressive.

My good friend, Joe Rozek, wrote a blog about the relationship between fractal and bonsai. Joe is a thinking man, a philosophy student, and he explained the complexities very well in layman’s terms. He said bonsai masters do not create beautiful trees based on mathematical concepts, their trees are beautiful because they possess the internal logic of of nature’s beauty which happened to be describable in mathematical terms.

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