Image: Sadaoka Gakutei (Japanese, 1786[?]-1868). First Companion of the Writing Chamber: Ink, ca. 1827. Surimono: ink, metallic powders, and color on paper. Eskenazi Museum of Art 70.4.73
This summer the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University is offering a special exhibition called Spotlights: Five Views into the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Collection, on view June 11-September 4, 2016. In this exhibition each of the museum’s five curators has chosen a group of objects to highlight due to their rarity, research interest, or importance, as a way of further displaying the range and quality that make the museum’s collection among the best in the country. You can find an overview of the exhibition HERE, and we will be taking a deeper look at the individual collections “spotlighted” here on the blog this summer. First up is an exquisite collection of Japanese surimono woodblock prints, curated by Judy Stubbs, the museum’s Pamela Buell Curator of Asian Art. Stay tuned for future updates.
The Eskenazi Museum of Art is fortunate to have a collection of almost ninety surimono, or special-edition prints, in various formats. However, these appealing prints are rarely exhibited because of their light-sensitive pigments. The prints in Spotlights have not been on display as a group since 1979, when Professor Theodore Bowie (Indiana University Department of Fine Arts) curated an exhibition of surimono that was accompanied by a groundbreaking catalogue. Spotlights offers a welcome opportunity to research these prints anew, add information, and display two newly acquired prints for the first time.
The word surimono means “printed thing,” a definition that does little to explain this exquisite genre of woodblock printing, which combines poetry and imagery. Developed in the late eighteenth century, surimono prints were privately commissioned and exchanged between friends and colleagues–especially members of poetry groups–as gifts, rather than sold commercially. As such, surimono required a high level of collaboration between artist, printer, and patron. Produced in small numbers, the prints offered opportunities for the use of elaborate printing techniques and luxurious materials such as fine paper and gold and silver inks.
Image: Shibata Zeshin (Japanese, 1807-1891). A Cock, a Chicken, and Chicks, 1861, Year of the Rooster. Surimono: ink and color on paper. Purchased with funds from the Thomas T. Solley Endowed Fund for Asian Art and the estate of Herman B Wells via the Joseph Granville and Anne Bernice Wells Memorial Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art 2016.25
The prints displayed in Spotlights were made for a variety of occasions, especially as New Year’s cards, but also as eulogies, invitations, and anything related to Kabuki actors. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Kabuki plays were an extremely popular form of entertainment. Additionally, two examples of the surimono subgroup Egoyomi, or calendar prints, are on view. Initially, surimono were printed in a wide variety of sizes, until about 1810 when the shikishiban, or square print format (size 20.5 x 18.5 cm), became the norm. Surimono prints often include one or more kyoka, or “wild verse” poetry, which often take visual cues from the accompanying images to create puns for the puzzlement and enjoyment of the viewer.
Image: Ryuryuko Shinsai (active 1799-1823). Lacquer Box and Writing Implements, 1818, Year of the Tiger. Commissioned by the Shakuyakutei Poetry Group. Surimono: ink, metallic pigments, and color on paper. Purchased with funds from the Thomas T. Solley Endowed Fund for Asian Art and the estate of Herman B Wells via the Joseph Granville and Anna Bernice Wells Memorial Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art 2016.24
In total, twenty-one surimono are on view in the Spotlights exhibition. We hope you will take the opportunity to visit the museum and see this rarely exhibited collection for yourself. If you would like to learn more about Japanese woodblock prints we recommend you visit the website Viewing Japanese Prints, which offers a wealth of information on the subject. If you have any questions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.