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 with poems, they exhibit elaborate printing and embossing techniques and the application of metallic dusts and colors on thick paper. The specialized division of labor common in the Japanese woodblock printing process was sometimes overlooked, as painters and poets designed prints and printers both engraved and printed their designs.
The link between text and image in surimono is an important one. By the early nineteenth century, when most of these objects were made, the image and the accompanying poems were conceived together in what is now regarded as the characteristic format. Whether the poetry referred directly to the subject of the print or played upon the printed image by using word puns and an assortment of allusions, the work of art was always infused with meaning for its educated recipient, as well as a sensuous beauty meant to be savored and enjoyed.
Most of the selections in this exhibition are from a group of eighty-eight prints presented to the Museum as a gift by George Pierce Metcalf in 1956. The group came from a single Osaka album, one of at least two that were presented as gifts to Raphael Pumpelly, a well-known geologist, during his travels in Japan in 1863, soon after that country opened its doors to the West. Not only are these some of the earliest Japanese prints to leave Japan; 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 the printmakers of Edo (modem Tokyo). The numerous kyoka (comic) poems by Tsurunoya Osamaru (d. 1839) and members of his circle, as well as the appearance of a "crane" (tsuru) seal on many of the prints, make it clear that his patronage and that of his fellow poets provided the impetus for the creation of many of these works.