Let’s drop the cat in the middle of the pigeons by saying that most art forms have specific styles or movements that are easily recognisable through look, technique or application. This article is just one of many having a good go at describing different painting styles (https://indonesiadesign.com/story/major-art-painting-styles). These include styles like Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism and many others. The artist themselves can in a lot of cases be identified by just looking at their work. Bonsai does not have that and there the cat goes.
How does this relate to Bonsai? Most Bonsai artists will be able to explain the difference between Bonsai and Penjing (see Zhao Qingquan’s work) and then there is also the nuggets of wisdom wanting to explain Niwaki as an art form, and we will rather stay away from saying too much about Topiary (just joking). Then there is also Kenji Kobayashi describing Keshiki Bonsai and many other attempts at identifying styles.
A book of great value is that of Charles Ceronio, Bonsai styles of the world (2015) in which he describes the structural styles of Bonsai design. What I am getting to here is to see if we can identify styles like it is done with paintings as mentioned in the first paragraph. There are attempts made by some artists to add to this knowledge and an example of this could be Walter Pall talking about the Naturalistic style. Is that even a thing? Taking a hedge trimmer to a Bonsai and giving it a name is probably not the best of attempts to give a style a name.
It is quite clear that there are many easily recognisable trees or even collections of trees that can be attributed to specific Bonsai artists. Goshin would be a good example of this. I can also think of some of Masahiko Kimura’s trees as easily identifiable. Is that true for many of the current big or trendy names that we currently have in Bonsai? Can you pick a Bjorholm, a Noelanders, a Neil, a Pall out of a line up of trees?
Then there is also a debate going around on specific regional styles. Is their a European style or an American style? What we do see is that artists use native trees from specific areas and do a wonderful job with those trees, but at the end of the day, these trees still relate back to the basic design styles of Bonsai and not necessarily an artist or a region or a philosophical style. The one exception will be that of Literati. Is that the only design style that can be linked to a time period or a movement?
Where to with this argument? Probably nowhere and does it really matter. We have the basic design styles in Bonsai and many derivatives from that, we have individual expression in each tree and if that is recognisable as the work from a specific artist, great. Do we need to link it to the “isms” that we find in other art forms? So far it has been restricted for Bonsai or maybe it is just case of it not being necessary for the Bonsai world. Or is it? Is this the missing bit for Bonsai to be recognised as a true art form? Maybe we can just enjoy Bonsai for what it is and not overcomplicate matters by trying to find its place in mainstream art forms. It could be that it is so far removed from other art forms that the vocabulary needed to describe it is very different. Maybe the vocabulary must still be worked out?
Whatever it is, it is art, a living art. It is an art form that humans use to express themselves within what nature provides to do so. It could be that it is too free to put in a box and put “ism” at the end of the name of the box.