Judging Bonsai

December 5, 2017

Judging art is very subjective and judging bonsai can be highly controversial and emotive.

 

Bonsai are judged at major exhibitions, photographic and young-designer competitions. Sub- consciously we judge our own trees every time we work on or look at them. Every time we consider purchasing a bonsai or pre-bonsai or collecting a yamadori, some sort of evaluation or judging process takes place.

 

The monetary and prestigious value of a tree is greatly enhanced by winning a major competition. The designer gets recognition and positive impetus to his career. The top trees set a benchmark for future reference and serve as a teaching model for students of the art as well as an informative statement to the general public. Judging bonsai sets a standard for future improvement. It must be seen as positive encouragement and not criticism. It is therefore very important to have a good understanding of the judging process and have a working model whether we judge our own or somebody else's tree.

 

Adjudicating is a responsible and sensitive matter. It requires experience, objectivity and high ethical standards. Cultural and environmental background, personality, education, training and previous experiences are just some of the factors that will influence adjudicators. A bonsai judge must steer away from fundamentalism, the strong tendency to award previously established "codes", mere pattem recognition and objectively evaluate the inherent value of a tree.

 

A number of judging systems have been proposed to determine the relative quality of one bonsai, compared to another. The judging system and the relative importance of individual judging criteria are decided upon by the adjudicating body. Sometimes bonsai are judged according to size, style or even species.

 

Judging systems vary from very simple to comprehensive scoring sheets.

 

The most basic system (similar to the way Gymnastics is judged) is to score a bonsai on a scale from 1 to 10 where a score of 5 is average and 10 represents a perfect score. Using this system is fast and uncomplicated, but it is highly subjective and lacks consistency and transparency. The judge does not need to reveal the criteria that influenced his decisions. It lacks educational information and does not explain any ofthe artistic or technical aspects or their relative importance. This way of judging bonsai is very much based on pattem recognition and not intrinsic value of the bonsai.

 

Several more comprehensive and analytical methods have been suggested. Different features of the bonsai are judged individually and scored on a scale from 1 to 10 or as a percentage.

 

One example of such a method (evaluation form 1) is where the visual impact (artistic impression?) is scored out of60 and specific marks allocated to other features of the bonsai. The problem with this method is that there is no distinction between the artistic and technical aspects of the tree. The relative importance of individual features are also questionable. Why are the roots more important than the trunk or the trunk more important than the branches and ramification?

 

Some systems award points for the health of the bonsai. This practice is questionable as exhibition trees should always be in perfect health, pest-free, without weeds on the ground-cover, in a clean pot and it is therefore not necessary to include these categories in judging systems.

One example of such a method (evaluation form 1) is where the visual impact (artistic impression?) is scored out of60 and specific marks allocated to other features of the bonsai. The problem with this method is that there is no distinction between the artistic and technical aspects of the tree. The relative importance of individual features are also questionable. Why are the roots more important than the trunk or the trunk more important than the branches and ramification?

 

Some systems award points for the health of the bonsai. This practice is questionable as exhibition trees should always be in perfect health, pest-free, without weeds on the ground-cover, in a clean pot and it is therefore not necessary to include these categories in judging systems.

 

Another method is where the tree is given an overall mark based on visual impact as a percentage. Individual features are now scored and marks from 1 to 10 are added or subtracted (evaluation from 2). In this example the ground cover carries as much weight as the pot and the trunk?

 

 

Comprehensive judging systems seem fair, objective and transparent and every minute detail of the bonsai is taken into account (evaluation form 3). This way of adjudicating bonsai is time- consuming and not practical if a large number of trees must be judged.

 

 

The perfect judging system must be simple and practical. It must combine artistic and technical criteria and reflect their relative importance. The system must be transparent, consistent and more objective. It must reveal enough information about the judging process to serve as an educational tool. The ideal judging system should encourage exhibitors to improve the quality of individual trees.

 

Attila Soos proposed a judging system that addresses most of these requirements (evaluation 4).

 

 

The qualitative attributes of bonsai are separated into two major groups. SUBJECT and TECHNIQUE. SUBJECT incorporates all the artistic aspects, while TECHNIQUE includes the technical details.

 

SUBJECT is divided into character and design.

 

Character recognises the quality of the tree, age, maturity and unique features such as deadwood, hollows, cavities, jagged trunk and branch movement.

 

Design must be evocative, consistent in form and detail, imaginative and portray a clear thematic message.

 

TECHNIQUE is divided into four categories: trunk, nebari, branches and pot. Trunk - movement, taper, impression or age and grandeur and balanced with foliage; nebari - spread, ramification, balance, stability, harmoniously matching trunk base; branches - placement, proportion, maturity, anatomical balance, ramification with minimal but neat and effective human interference; pot - suitability , (colour, size, design), trunk placement and ground-cover.

 

The different categories are scored from 1 to 10 where 5 is average and a lOis awarded where no fault can be found that warrants any point subtraction.

 

The SUBJECT category is given twice as much weight (x2) as the TECHNIQUE category (xl).

 

If equal importance is given to SUBJECT (quality of the material) as to TECHNIQUE (technical quality of workmanship), a well-trained, immature tree might get the same score as an old characterful yamadori. (evaluation form 5 and 6).

 

 

 

Without the extra weight assigned to SUBJECT the yamadori will only score 5.866 and the nursery tree will score 6.0.

 

 

 

RECENTLY DESIGNED MATERIAL

 

 

Recently trained trees (as in a young designer's competition) need a slightly different approach. In this instance the scoring system should be even more transparent, objective and consistent. It must serve as an educational tool and the judges' scoring sheets must be made available to contestants. There should also be an opportunity for post-adjudication discussion.

 

In the judging system the two major groups SUBJECTS and TECHNIQUE will carry equal weight. In the category section, character will disappear because nursery stock of similar size and age (usually Junipers) are used in these competitions. Pot will be replaced by wiring and nebari will be categorized with trunk as contestants will have no or little control over the quality of the roots on the trees they draw.

 

The SUBJECT category represents the artistic aspects of the bonsai and is divided into visual impact and design. The visual impact is the overall impression or "wow-factor" of the tree. The presence or lack of interest. Under design the artistic aesthetics (visual balance, harmony, perspective, proportion, form and shape) are judged.

 

TECHNIQUE represents the technical aspects and has four sub-categories: trunk, branches, pruning and wiring,

 

 

Trunk - movement and taper, best possible front, relationship between nebari and trunk.

 

Branches - placement, anatomical balance, consistency and ramification.

 

Pruning - correct trimming and placement of foliage pads taking the future health of the bonsai into account, pruning scars must be neat and unobtrusive, jins and shari's neat and natural looking and appropriate to form and thematic message.

 

Wiring - wire, raffia and guy wires must be neat, effective and correctly applied.

 

This judging system is simple, but sensitive enough to give a fair reflection of the young designer's artistic and technical skills. It is transparent and will give enough feedback to contestants. (evaluation form 7).

 

A large number of different judging systems exists and this is probably proof that no single system is perfect or suitable to every situation.

 

"Through the eyes of the beholder is beauty seen. Through the heart is beauty felt. "

Tobie Kleynhans

 

Acknowledgements:   Judging Bonsai - Attila Soos  

                                  Pattern recognition in judging bonsai - Walter Pall

                                  Adjudicators Symposium - Lionel Theron

 

 

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