Surimono Ukiyo-e Refined

Arts of Asia September/October 1987 issue

Text by Timothy Mertel
Surimono courtesy of Honeychurch Antiques
Photographs by Stephen Markbreiter


Figure 1 Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Soga no Goro by
Utagawa Kunisada, 1820


Virtually everyone familiar with Asian art has been exposed to Japanese woodblock prints. Woodblock artists, such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, are exalted for their genius of design. Western painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Manet, Whistler, Degas, Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt . Klimt and countless others, have all been influenced by the Japanese woodblock art. Even though there is a universal appreciation for this Japanese artform, little is known about the privately published woodblock print, the surimono. Japanese woodblock prints are better known as ukiyo-e, meaning pictures from the floating world. Ukiyo-e prints were reflections of the non-aristocratic Japanese life-style. The subject matters for ukiyo-e prints were based on the theatre. Scenes of actors in popular plays and scenes from everyday life were admired by the common people. These prints were disdained by the aristocracy as genre art. The ukiyo-e prints were commercially produced, involving the artist, engraver, printer and publisher to complete a series of woodblock prints. Often the prints were misregistered or lacked in intense scrutiny of fabrication. Surimono on the other hand are the finest examples of the ukiyo-e tradition.

Surimono are special works of art, usually in a smaller 8 x 7 inches format. They were commissioned works by wealthy patrons of the arts. Their purpose was to be given away, either as greetings or announcements. This fashion developed during the latter part of the eighteenth century and lasted through the middle of the nineteenth century. These special greetings were given principally for the New Year, but other occasions such as tea ceremonies, poetry competitions, birthdays and promotions, called for the composition of surimono. The quality of production and design far exceeds the ukiyo-e woodblock print. Since the occasion for surimono was a special one, intense care would be taken to select the appropriate ukiyo-e artist, and to work with the artist in developing a beautiful image, yet with subtle nuance and sophistication. Ukiyo-e artists and printers excelled in creating prints of the highest calibre.

Figure 2 Five Festive Street Entertainers
by Ryuryukyo Shinsai, circa 1800

The paper used in production was of a heavy weight in order to accommodate printing techniques, such as embossing and metallic impressions. A whimsical print (Figure 2), portraying a band of five festive street entertainers, uses the technique of embossing, including an embossed portion of the print as an intrinsic part of the design. The various figures carry an assortment of domestic kitchen tools to enact their performance. The figure in the foreground has his back to the audience and carries a large basket of rice on his head. The rice is depicted without any outline of ink. It is shown through embossing the impression of kernels the surface of the paper. This technique adds depth to the otherwise flat aspect of Japanese woodblock prints. The figures are reminiscent of those in Hokusai's Manga publications with their comical expressions and humorous postures. This print was designed by one of Hokusai's star pupils, Ryuryukyo Shinsai, who is noted for his surimono. The figures are clad in colourful garments with embossed patterns, some with touches of silver or gold leaf, which are impressed onto the surface of the paper.

Figure 3 Scholar's Ink Palette, unsigned, 1824

The inks chosen for surimono were of the finest quality with slight gradations of shading, allowing added depth and interest in a print. An unsigned work (Figure 3) exemplifies this use of shading. At first glance, a pleasing still life of a scholar's ink palette is perceived, with a blossoming vine and two clam shells, all in predominant coral coloured ink. The background is of a slightly lighter shade of the coral theme. It appears to be of a somewhat irregular pattern, but upon close examination, in the upper left-hand corner there is an outline of a monkey climbing in a tree that encompasses the entire background. The monkey is a reference to the Asian zodiac pertaining to the year of the monkey (1824). 


Figure 4 Geisha and Attendant by Utagawa
Kunisada, circa 1820

The definition of the line is refined to hairline accuracy in surimono. In ordinary woodblock prints the original line of the printing process would be the black outline, The definition of the line in surimono is not black but grey, A surimono by Utagawa Kunisada (Figure 4) illustrates this technique. The outline is of a faint grey hue providing a mystical quality to this whimsical print. As prolific and ordinary as Kunisada was, it is nice to see that he could produce quality work such as this. The subject, a humorous one, is of a young attendant searching the inner robes of a seated geisha for keys she has mistakenly thought lost down the back of her clothes, The keys are, in fact, lying in plain sight, just behind the attendant. This print uses the shaded quality of the line. Overall the outline is light grey with dark black used in the pillow and bedding material in the background. The crown appears to be of a dark grey hue, but is embossed silver leaf.

The ukiyo-e tradition stems from the kabuki theatre. It is no wonder that surimono production was heavily patronised by the performing arts. Kabuki actors personally commissioned artists to design special announcements or greetings. A fabulous New Year greeting by Utagawa Kunisada (Figure 1- title image) is of Ichikawa Danjuro VII in the traditional Soga no Goro butterfly robe. He stands in front of a rectangular whetstone and holds a painting of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune (Shiichifuku), a traditional New Year subject matter. The boat that the Seven Gods are sailing has a dragon prow, a reference to the Year of the Dragon (1820). The Seven Gods of Good Fortune painting was traditionally placed underneath a person's pillow on the first night of the New Year, who would then hope to dream of riches that night. If he or she was successful then the result would be prosperity throughout the year. This well-wishing print was commissioned by Ichikawa Danjuro VII as his New Year greeting for 1820.

Figure 5 Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Soga no
Goro by Utagawa Kunisada, 1821

Another print commissioned by Ichikawa Danjuro VII (Figure 5) is similar to the Figure 1 example with the actor costumed in the traditional Soga no Goro butterfly robe. The Soga brothers epic kabuki tale was performed every spring at the beginning of the kabuki season and is symbolic of the New Year. This figure in a striking pose also drawn by Utagawa Kunisada is an announcement print for the actor. Another identical example of this print is published in Surimono: Privately Published Japanese Prints in the Spencer Museum of Art by Roger Keyes, 1984, Plate 33. The Spencer example differs only in the verse which commemorates a birthday. Since the script varies, it raises the question of whether artists held back stocks of surimono which could be printed with any type of verse at the customer's request, or whether perhaps Ichikawa Danjuro VII chose to use the same drawing on different occasions.

Figure 6 Two Actors and Niwaka Dancer by
Utagawa Toyokuni and Ryuryukyo Shinsai, circa 1810

Ichikawa Danjuro is the premier kabuki actor. The Danjuro name was passed on from master to student throughout the history of the kabuki theatre, thus Ichikawa Danjuro was a great patron of the arts. A collaborative surimono (Figure 6) by Utagawa Toyokuni and Ryuryukyo Shinsai is quite rare. The subject portrays Ichikawa Danjuro VII seated with his colleague Yamashita Kinsako II. Their formal dress denotes their identity by their respective family crests. They are watching a Niwaka dancer performing the pony dance, with a hobby horse, as a New Year celebration. Collaborative works such as this between artists are a rare occurrence. 


Figure 7 Festival Float by Ryuryukyo Shinsai, 1820

The kabuki theatre was not the only source of performance entertainment portrayed in surimono. Japan has many diverse forms of entertainment, some stemming from a religious background or ingrained as part of festive ritual. Ryuryukyo Shinsai excelled in illustrating the diverse forms of the Japanese performing arts. He designed an untitled series of festival float surimono. A print from this series is published in Roger Keyes' The Art Of Surimono: Privately Published Japanese Woodblock Prints and Books in the Chester Beaty Library, Dublin, Volume II, Plate 291. Another print from this series (Figure 7) is a partial view of a large festival float with two performers costumed as court retainers; one with a falcon perched on his hand and the other with a small dog on a leash. The float is decorated with silver paper garlands. Publishing a series of surimono is basically unheard of except for such artists as Shinsai, who predominately designed surimono. The production of surimono was a seasonal endeavour. The greatest demand was before the New Year and extremely slow in the late spring. The surimono artist would have to support himself by designing other types of art, or work on designs that could be used throughout the year and could be purchased as opposed to commissioned. This festival float series is such a print, where the series was designed and the client would later specify the verse.

Figure 8 Kintaro by Shoichi, 1819

New Year greetings is a tradition that still exists today in japan. During the first half of the nineteenth century the trend was to give surimono as the medium to wish a friend, relative or colleague a joyous and prosperous New Year. An interesting New Year surimono (Figure 8) by Shoichi is of Kintaro, the mythical golden boy known for his great strength and endurance. He is seated reaching for a jumping rabbit toy. The rabbit is a visual reference to the Year of the Rabbit (1819). The hammer in the foreground serves a dual symbolic purpose. It is the emblem of Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. The God of Plenty, as he is known, chases pernicious influences away at the be ginning of each New Year. The hammer is also known as the money or magic mallet. The entire context of this illustration is to wish the recipient prosperity, security and strength in the Year of the Rabbit.

Another symbol of Daikoku is the rice bale. A New Year still life by Keisai Eisen (Figure 9) has the rice bale as part of its composition. It is combined with a bamboo branch, adorned with a mask of Otofuku, the Goddess of Mirth and Merriment, and a gold coin. Included in the still life is a bamboo shaft containing sake leaning against a large potted adonis flower. All of this rests upon temple literature and a temple complex is seen off in the distance. This combination celebrates New Year traditions of visiting a temple and drinking sake, while it wishes the recipient health, wealth, strength and happiness.

Figure 9 New Year Still Life by Keisai Eisen, circa 1820


Figure 10 Floral Arrangement bySunayarna Gosei, 1820

Often the subtleties of a New Year print are not as apparent to the naked eye. A surimono by Sunayama Gosei (Figure 10) at first glance is an elegant floral arrangement issuing from an hourglass-shaped vase resting upon a fine Momoyama period (1568 -1615) stand. The arrangement of a blossoming branch and camellia sweeps down into another floral container and issues back up to the height of the original container. This sophisticated type of arrangement exaggerates the branch that is used. It is known as a Reclining Dragon Plum (Garyubai). In case this reference to the Dragon Year 1820 is not perceived it is repeated again in the decoration along the sides of the low squat floral container. Upon close examination there is a dragon along the sides of the container. The symbolism does not end with the Year of the Dragon. This print was commissioned by the Go Gawa, or Group of Five, one of the most famous poetry groups of the early nineteenth century. The emblem for the group is a stylised "5" in the shape of an hourglass. The emblem appears in seal form in the upper right-hand corner. This emblem is repeated in the picture itself; the shape of the vase is the emblem; the lacquer stand the vase rests upon is decorated in gold-embossed hourglass emblems; and the label for the lower floral container has the Go Gawa emblem. Sunayama Gosei published many prints for the Group of Five and knew the tastes of his patrons. His use of "Dragon" and "Go Gawa" entertains the sophisticated recipient.

Figure 11 Benten by Keisai Eisen, circa 1820

Surimono commissioned by poets are complex and esoteric in their design. The poetry groups of the early nineteenth century presented their works in surimono form. Another God of Good Fortune is portrayed in a surimono by Keisai Eisen (Figure 11). Benten, the Chinese Goddess of Compassion and Music, is the central figure. She is dressed in a Chinese court robe and is seated while playing a biwa (Chinese lute). A child in the foreground is reading verse. A flowering bonsai plant in the background has a reverse swastika pattern on the bonsai container. The reverse swastika is the emblem of Shinratei Manzo, leader of a famous poetry group. The emblem is repeated for a second time on the key-fret pattern of Benten's robe. The poetry theme is signified by the book in the foreground. This poetry print contains three poems and is known as an open competition print, where the three best poems are printed. The winning poem of the three is preceded by a small circle. 

Another poetry print by Keisai Eisen (cover image) is an open competition print for the Yomo Gawa, or Four Directions Group. This group, whose emblem is an open fan, is one of the most important kyoka (thirty-one syllable verse) poetry groups during the early nineteenth century. Eisen has wrapped the drawing around an open fan. He has surrounded it by a paper falcon kite and kite reel, with blossoming prunus in the background and a festival rattle in the foreground. This print dedicated to springtime contains four kyoka. The third kyoka preceded by a small circle is judged to be best.

cover - poetry print by Keisai Eisen, early 19th century


A poetry print designed by Shinsai (Figure 12) contains two poems in an open competition using the small circle again to denote the winning poem. This surimono was commissioned by the Drum Group led by Dondontei Wataru. Their drum emblem is in the upper right-hand corner but not repeated in the picture. Shinsai chose to convey the idea of scholarly pursuits by drawing a bookcase filled with books, scrolls, document boxes and writing instruments.

Figure 12 Bookcase by Ryuryukyo Shinsai, circa 1800

Still lifes such as these are the most desirable types of surimono for the collector. They are the farthest removed from the ukiyo-e woodblock prints in their refined elegance of design and subject. A still life by Totoya Hokkei (Figure 13) is exemplary of simplicity in design. A simple grouping of two clam shells, a sprig of seaweed and a small mussel are highlighted with embossing including the shore break in the background. Subjects such as these cannot be found in the ukiyo-e tradition. The print exudes quality even though the design is not complex.

Figure 13 Sea Shells by Totoya Hokkei, circa 1810

Foreign subject matter is the rarest type of still life surimono. A surimono by Kitao Shigemasa (Figure 14) is of a European-style carriage clock with a large bell and a zodiac dial face. It is combined with a partially unrolled piece of fabric in the foreground. This type of work is rare, especially since Shigemasa was a leading ukiyo-e painter and printer who was strongly influenced by Harunobu. His works are extremely difficult to find.

Figure 14 Carriage Clock by Kitao Shigemasa, circa 1800

Surimono are beautiful pictures providing insight into Japanese culture of the late Edo period (1615 -1867). The intricacies of design combined with symbolic subject matter provides an interesting study, whereby we may better understand the Japanese social aesthetic. These prints were given to friends and associates and not sold to anonymous consumers in the open marketplace. Surimono are intimate reflections of Japanese artists and their patrons.

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