“The poets' scrolls will outlive the monuments of stone.” ― Edmund Spenser
Honestly, if I had to bet on it, I would bet on the suiseki and the pots outlasting the scroll. However, I like the scrolls better than the stone monuments, even though I don't own any scrolls, referred to in Japanese as kakemono (掛物, "hanging"), or more often, kakejiku (掛軸?, "hung scroll").
As I continue to plan for participating in my first formal bonsai exhibit, which probably won't be until next year, I've managed to sit in on a couple of discussions regarding the use of scrolls, and I've read several good articles on the topic, and here's what I've learned:
The classic way of displaying your bonsai is in an alcove with three harmonious elements that form a scalene triangle (so, for example, a tree leaning to the right should be placed on the left side of the display, and your scroll will usually be the tallest point in the display, and will be centered). This form of display is called a tokonoma, and it is common both at bonsai exhibits and in private homes in Japan. It traditionally has a tree on one side or the other, a hanging scroll, called a kakejiku (usually in the center and the highest part of the display) and a stone (suiseki), accent plant (such as a kusamono) or some other ornamental object (like an okimono) on the other side. Typically, and especially in the case of a home tokonoma, the scroll and/or the the accent piece will convey the season if it is not readily apparent from looking at the tree. This "rule" is less applicable in a bonsai show, where reflecting the season is not necessarily as important. In a bonsai exhibit, the scroll should never overpower the visual impact of the tree, but in one's home, the tokonoma might very well have a scroll as its primary focus.
Herb's display at the Dai Ichi's Serenity Through Bonsai show.
Hanging scrolls can be Shin (formal), Gyou (semi-formal) or Sou (informal). The most formal tokonoma are highlighted by more formal hanging scrolls. Elements that make a hanging scroll more formal include fuutai (strips at the top), and gold backing called ichimonji. Gyou do not contain the fuutai. Sou will have neither fuutai nor ichimonji.
When displaying bonsai, the hanging scroll's purpose is to fill out the triangular display and emphasize the season or mood of the arrangement without simply aping another element of the display. The elements should compliment one another without redundancy. For example, if the primary element of the display is a flowering bonsai that is in bloom, a scroll with flowers would not be ideal. If the tree is planted over a rock, or there is a dramatic stone in the display, one would not want a stone to be prominently featured in the scroll, although a rocky mountainside might be outstanding. Images are generally more popular than symbols or calligraphy. Images of trees are less popular than other images, such as fish, animals, insects, flowers, grass, mountains, a sun, moon, snowflakes, raindrops, rivers, architecture. Generally, people are not preferred subjects.
There are several ways a season can be conveyed in the scroll. For example, Mt. Fuji is a popular subject for scrolls. Seasons can be inferred from the presence of snow, rain, green trees or barren trees. and so on with each depiction capturing a specific time of year and even the time of day.
- Spring can be suggested with flowers, cherry blossoms or a crocus shoot, litters of young animals, such as ducklings, or kits;
- Summer can be suggested with warm colors, a hot sun, a green forest or landscape, cattails, cicadas, dragonflies, frogs or turtles;
- Fall might be conveyed with a falling leaf or a branch of yellow, orange or red leaves. A rising or setting some;
- Winter can be seen with snow on a mountain, hill or a tree branch, ice or icicle, a water bird or setting moon, barren trees or branches, or wafting smoke.
It is not important to convey season if it is very obvious from the bonsai tree in the display (or even from the accent plant or stone). If you are showing a liquidambar that is red and orange, your scroll need not suggest autumn, because your tree already makes that clear. If you are showing a winter silhouette, there's no need to put a snow-capped mountain on a scroll in your display. It is clear that we are in winter. You could use almost anything in a scroll with such a tree - a poem in script, a bird, a rock, or anything else that doesn't clash with or overpower the tree itself. One of my favorites was a cascade over rock display that was accompanied by a scroll showing a seabird, calling to mind the imagery of a free growing out of an oceanfront cliff.
In Japan, antique silk scrolls can sell for more than a million dollars if the artist is famous and sought after, but you can start with something very inexpensive from your local import, home decor or Asian specialty store.