Surimono (literally “printed objects”) are distinguished from polychrome woodblock prints by the presence of a variety of texts integrated into their overall compositions. Privately commissioned and published as announcements, commemorations, or most often as New Year’s greetings bearing poetry, they are characterized by elaborate printing and embossing techniques and the application of metallic dusts and colors on thick paper. The link between text and image in surimono is an important one. By the early 19th century, when these objects were made, the image and the accompanying poem or poems were conceived together in what is now regarded as the classic surimono form. The square size (shikishiban, one sixth of an obōsho sheet, approx. 15 ⅜ × 23 ¼ in.) was nearly standard, and the accompanying poetry was usually kyōka (“crazy verse”), witty 31-syllable waka (court) poems written by members of various poetry groups who subsidized the production of the prints. Whether the poetry referred directly to the print’s visual subject or played upon it through word puns and allusions, the artwork was always infused with visual and verbal meaning and a sensuous beauty meant to be savored and enjoyed by its recipient.
The selections in this exhibition are from a group of 88 rare and beautiful works given to the Museum in 1956 by George Pierce Metcalf (1890–1957). Mr. Metcalf’s wife, Pauline Pumpelly Cabot (1903–1976), was the granddaughter of Raphael Pumpelly (1837–1923), geologist, explorer, and archaeologist. These prints came from a single album, one of two presented as gifts to Pumpelly on his departure from Japan in early 1863, soon after that country opened its doors to visitors from the West. Not only are these some of the earliest prints to leave Japan, but the album’s unique association with Osaka is confirmed through the inclusion of Osaka poets and printmakers whose works are not as well known as those from Edo (modern Tokyo). The album was assembled by Iga no Kurimi (active ca. 1810–1839), who participated in poetry gatherings in both Edo and Osaka. The numerous kyōka poems by Tsurunoya Osamaru (ca. 1751–ca. 1839) and members of his Crane Poetry Group (Tsuru-gawa), as well as the appearance of a nesting crane (tsuru means “crane” in Japanese) emblem on many of the prints, make it clear that his patronage and that of his fellow Osaka poets provided the impetus for the creation of a fair percentage of works in the RISD album. Mostly dated to the 1820s, these prints also point to a collaboration between the poets and Tani Seikō (act. 1822–1831), a masterful blockcutter whose subtle carving and printing skills were enlisted in their production. The specialized division of labor common in the Japanese woodblock printing process was sometimes overlooked in the album. Painters and poets designed some of the surimono with guidance from Tani Seikō, whose personal seal is found on many of these examples. He then carved and printed their designs.
The Museum gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Roger S. Keyes, who has studied and published the Pumpelly album on exhibition here.