They’re called mud men. You likely saw them on mall bonsai all over the place a decade or so ago. He was small and made of different color clays, and he may or may not have been holding a fishing pole. Perhaps instead he was looking into the distance in a reflective manner.
Lately, most people would say no to the mud man, because they’ve gone seriously out of style. This begs the question of who put little men on there in the first place and what you’re supposed to dress your bonsai with if not little men?
HISTORY OF MUDMEN
It turns out that having little figurines on bonsai has been super common for, well, pretty much forever. In the Tang Dynasty 1,000 years ago, Chinese artists used small figurines, rocks, and trees to create miniature landscapes in a dish, pot, or tray. The art is called Penjing. It’s in the bonsai family, and is currently experiencing resurgence in popularity.
The thought process is that using figurines (or little houses, temples, etc.) helps to create perspective. This perspective helps viewers imagine themselves in the ideal scene that has been created, and feel a certain peace or rejuvenation from doing so.
Historically mudmen were figures, glazed with bright colors. They generally included: men (and on rare occasions women) who might be sitting or standing, and might be holding scrolls, pots, and yes… fishing poles.
The diminutive mudmen were made by hand from clay by using molds. Pieces (the bodies, limbs, hats, ears and beards etc.) were each cast individually and assembled. There was no mudman factory. Individual artists made them and thus, there’s a wide variation in quality but mudmen are small works of art in and of themselves. With their small size they are very collectible and then and now.
Present day serious collectors are only going for the vintage mudmen. Though they are produced now in modern day they’re not created with the same care and individual detail that they used to be. They’re more factory-produced now.
Historically, typical color patterns included yellow mustard, cerulean blue, and celadon green as the most common colors, along with whites and browns. The skin was frequently left unglazed to show the mud as something close to flesh tone. The markings and figurine colors indicate when and possibly where mudmen were made, and some are much more valuable than others.
World War II sort of brought an end to it all when; either the kilns and molds used to make them were bombed and destroyed, or the kilns were put to work to make weaponry and the molds lost forever.
You might ask if making mudmen and mud villages and sticking them on bonsai have been going on so long why would it be out of style now? It might have to do with the fact that while accent plants and hand made pots and scrolls are Japanese, mud men are Chinese. Japanese artists used figurines in their bonsai too but dropped the practice around 400 years ago.
Which seems to get down to brass tacks really. I’ve noticed a certain complete and total homage to bonsai as a Japanese art. There has been little discussion of Chinese contributions to this art, though they’ve certainly been practicing it too. I say this knowing I’m throwing the door open here to criticism. But it sounds a little to me like the Scotch and Irish arguing about who made whiskey first.
That’s the point of view of an irreverent American though. Who in not only bonsai but also in whiskey/whisky decided what was out there was very nice and we’d do it too but in our own way. And did it well enough to make a style our very own.
My take is, if you like mudmen, stick one on there. Or two. Or a village. In my book, do whatever you like. You are the artist of your bonsai and you are the one who sees it every day. Art, and life is there for your enjoyment. Remember that the point of making mudmen in the first place was to create perspective and allow the viewers to imagine themselves in the scene and thus, have a moment of peace or refreshment. If the only one looking at those bonsai is you, do whatever gives you that moment of peace.
Reference: GaukoartiFact, the antiques encyclopedia http://gaukartifact.com/2013/03/07/mud-man-figures-of-china/