Surimono (literally ‘printed thing’) originally applied to Japanese woodblock printed material generally, but by the Edo period (1615-1868) the term came to be used for “limited edition, single-sheet woodblock prints that were distributed as private gifts rather than sold commercially” (Hanaoka and Pollard 2018:13). They were often of the highest quality, both in terms of the materials used (paper, inks) and the expertise of the printer. They became very popular in the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century (Siffert 1996). They were not commercial products, but generally privately commissioned by poetry groups. Prints would consist of a poem, or several poems, together with an image; poets or poetry groups would commission an artist to produce an image that resonated with the poems (Kazuhiro 2005:181). The poems were sometimes haiku (17 syllables in lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables) but in later works were usually in kyoka style, sometimes translated as mad or crazy poetry, kyoka are five line poems with the format of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, (Yamaguchi s.d.). Hanaoka and Pollard (2018:13) state that Kyoka poets aimed to challenge poetic traditions and subvert the classical poetry form, while demonstrating their own skills, wit and knowledge.
Popular woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) often ran into several thousand copies, but Surimono, being privately commissioned, were printed in much smaller numbers, sometimes just 50 or so. The artists commissioned to produce the image for the sheet were usually well-known professionals, including Katsushika Hokusai, who was “a brilliant innovator in surimono” (Kazuhiro 2005:181). Hanaoka and Pollard (2018:15) report that although surimono contained images, they were not intended for public display, instead they were for close examination in private. Both the images and the poetry rewarded careful study.
Poetry has always been an integral part of Japanese culture and consistently linked with other art forms and the combination of poetry with image is part of a long Japanese tradition combining literature and art (Hanaoka 2019). The range of topics and images contained within surimono is very wide. Many were commissioned to celebrate New Year and the artwork displayed activities associated with the marking of a new year. Other topics included Kabuki theatre scenes, courtesans, landscapes and still life. The still life category included birds and flower images (kachō-ga) although according to Brooks (2017:216) the majority of still life images are of manufactured objects. Nevertheless, there are many beautiful images of flowers incorporated within surimono prints, as shown in these examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Kubo Shunman (1757-1820). He was “a celebrated painter, print-maker and author of the Edo period (1615-1868), as a print-maker, he specialised in surimono” (Kubo Shunman s.d.).
(Left) Peonies and Iris and (Right) Clematis, Bush Clover, Iris, Camellia and Azalea; by Kubo Shunman,1815, Woodblock print (surimono); ink and color on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art; H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
Brooks, K. (2017) Something Rubbed: Medium, History, and Texture in Japanese Surimono. Harvard University.
Hanaoka, K. (2019) Surimono and Poetry. At: https://blogs.ashmolean.org/easternart/2019/03/14/surimono-and-poetry/ (Accessed 18/01/2021).
Hanaoka, K. and Pollard, C. (2018) Plum blossom and green willow: Japanese surimono poetry prints from the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum.
Kazuhiro, K. (2005) ‘The ‘surimono artist’ Hokusai in the society of edo kyoka poets’ In: Carpenter, J. (ed.) Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-e Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Late Edo Japan. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing. pp.180–215.
Kubo Shunman – Owl on a Flowering Magnolia Branch (s.d.) At: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O121416/owl-on-a-flowering-magnolia-woodblock-print-kubo-shunman/ (Accessed 18/01/2021).
Siffert, B. Y. (1996) ‘Surimono in the Clarence Buckingham Japanese Print Collection: An Introduction’ In: Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 22 (1) pp.55–95.
Yamaguchi, M. (s.d.) Hokusai’s printed illustrated books. At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/art-japan/edo-period/a/hokusais-printed-illustrated-books (Accessed 16/01/2021).