The tradition among Japanese poets and literati of commissioning and giving surimono (privately published single-sheet woodblock prints) was especially popular during the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century. Surimono, made with the finest materials (thick hoshi paper, gold, silver, and a wide range of pigments) and the highest technical skill (fine embossed patterns, subtle gradations and variety of hues, and exquisite carving), usually joined pictures with poetry. They were most frequently presented as gifts in celebration of spring and the New Year, but also used to announce musical performances or commemorate such special events as a name change or the start of a new business. The elegant effect of the surimono on view have poems by Tsurunoya, a leader of a circle of poets in Osaka. The diversity of pictures and the large number of poets associated with Tsurunoya in these prints are testimony to the inspired activity and enthusiasm for surimono among this circle of friends.
In combination with the poems, the pictures often jolt the viewer's perspective toward an understanding of new meanings in the poems. In ways that parallel the poetic tradition, the pictures make use of verbal puns, poetic allusions or indications of seasons. In their compositional treatment alone, the pictures frequently create innovative illusions by making the miniature or everyday object loom large and elegant, or by making lifeless subjects fairly burst with animate energy. In this selection of surimono, the smallest pleasures of the poet's physical world--morsels of food, tobacco pouches and pipes, books, dolls and flower arrangements--are transformed into fantastic treasures with a metaphysical power that rivals that found in the finest poems.
The surimono tradition employed the most skillful and innovative artists and inspired some of the most unusual, intelligent, and creative images. The lacquer prints of floral and plant pictures by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) are at once rooted in the surimono tradition in their composition and format, while diverging greatly in medium and technique.