focus - Surimono

The category of Japanese woodblock print known as surimono ('printed thing'), differs from other prints in many aspects: they were commissioned by private individuals rather than by commercial publishers, they were printed on thicker paper (hōshogami) which enhanced special printing effects, and they were embellished with poems which playfully link the words with the visual images.

Compared with the usual commercial ukiyo-e prints, surimono were considered luxury items, reflecting both the taste and the affluence of the people who commissioned them. For the artist the creation of surimono represented an important task executed in close contact with the leading connoisseurs, poets and actors of the day.

Most of the surimono prints were commissioned by kyoka ('crazy-verse') poetry groups, who would swap surimono at poetry gatherings.

They were often produced at New Year, with suitable poems, auguring good luck accompanying seasonal imagery or symbols of longevity. Kabuki actors commissioned surimono to spread among their sponsors and fans. Other individuals ordered surimono as private greeting cards or mementoes of special events for distribution among their friends or clients.

There were various types of special printing on surimono: blind embossing of the paper from specially cut blocks without ink (karazuri), using ivory or bone to press precise patterns into the paper; burnishing the surface after printing to make it glossy (tsuya-zuri), especially in black areas; metallic pigments, often brass, which reflect light; pigment sprayed to give a speckled effect; white pigment splashed onto the printed surface, often to depict snow or the spray of water. Many of these effects are only visible when the surimono is held in the hands and moved around searching the better light.

These special printing effects tease the eye, delight and amaze, in the same way that the poems and images amaze with their various allusive meanings.

The most important ukiyo-e artists of the years from the late 18th century to the first half of 19th, designed surimono. Among them Hokusai, a great master in the surimono art, who had a few pupils as Hokkei and Gakutei, specializing in this art. Another great master of the surimono prints was Shunman, perhaps only Hokusai was his peer in this field. Shunman was himself a kyoka poet; there is also some evidence that he engraved and possibly printed surimono.

Totoya Hokkei
A Chinese Princess gazing into a mirror
Katsushika Hokusai
Still life with seahorses and beetles
Keisai Eisen
A Geisha seated on a veranda
Ryuryukyo Shinsai
The Pure Red Shell - Masuogai, 1809
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Ryuryukyo Shinsai
Still life with the biwa
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Utagawa Sadakage
Oharame with a bundle of twigs
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Utagawa Sadakage
The Noda Chidoro river in Mutsu - Mutsu Sono Go
Totoya Hokkei
A Lady holding a Scroll