About Surimono

Suri mono – printed thing. As simple as that— yet this woodcut-and-poem art form from Japan a century and more ago is ever so much more.

 

The Japanese borrowed from China their Ch’an to become Zen, and they borrowed written characters, painting styles, poetry forms, lacquer and porcelain skills as well. These arts and crafts evolved with a distinctive Japanese flavor. By the late 1700’s, linked forms of verse were being printed in a fairly distinctive format in Japan. By the early 1800s, Japanese poets and poetry clubs commissioned the finest graphic artists and printmakers of the day to make lavish broadsheets called surimono. Small editions of these prints were given to friends and associates as gifts at the New Year. All the most exquisite techniques of the day were used, with no need to justify publishing expense. Designs printed in a simpler, more economical form were often later reissued by the publishers in large numbers for sale.

from author's  surimono collection

Surimono from the golden years 1810-1840 were designed by such notables as Hokusai and Hiroshige. Their designs were carved onto wood blocks and printed by masters of the craft. The poems might be haiku or often the sort known as kyōka: amusing, full of references to classical literature, replete with wordplay and verbal puns, often what we would consider in-jokes, and references possibly political or risqué.  Not to be outdone, the graphic artists chose highly symbolic objects to portray, objects which in themselves often functioned as visual puns, visual rhymes, and referents. 


The poems on surimono are in a long tradition of linking verse. Links may be a progression of authorship, a chain of thought, of seasons, or sound patterns and various other linking relationships which have no parallel in western literatures. Surimono often exhibit an enthusiasm for the natural world. What looks like a “still life” is merely static poses of living things. This creative, “sideways” thinking has a remarkable appeal to this day, even to those who do not read the language and do not know the culture. 

The calligraphy in which the poems are written is expressive in appearance but sometimes now nearly undecipherable. A modern translation poses all the usual challenges involved in translating poetry from one language into another, one era to another. Add to these challenges the fact that the borrowing of Chinese characters for written Japanese language had not yet been completely standardized by the age of surimono. 

Essentially ephemera, the woodcut prints were sometimes collected in boxes or pasted into albums. The cherry wood blocks were sufficiently durable for subsequent editions to be printed. Very soon after Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, western printing techniques – etchings, lithographs, and engravings— became the fashion among the Japanese elite. But as soon as Europeans clamored for surimono prints of their own, Japanese print makers found ways to accommodate their demand. Editions, reprints, restrike, reproductions, or knock-offs — you name it. Other poems might be substituted in the reissue. The design might be appropriated as a sort of advertisement or tourist souvenir. Older woodblock techniques were often kept secret and some now are lost.


Does that not now make modern pairing of images with new poems fair game for all cultures? The relationship of paint artists with photography has never been a comfortable one but now fusion seems inevitable. We have an infinite supply of photographs and paintings which we can combine or manipulate with ever-evolving apps. Poems are now made in many forms and styles. There is no single “right way” to decode or see the relationships between verbal and visual images. May you enjoy working out such relationships for yourself in a personal way