For a brief but intensely creative period, between the mid–1780s and 1830s, a group of Japanese aesthetes, inspired by a form of poetry known as kyoka (“madcap verse”), participated in a delightful annual activity that gave birth to some of the world’s most technically advanced, luxurious woodblock prints, and some of its wittiest constructions of words and images. Planning far in advance, often individually but also in clubs, these sophisticated literati devised original concepts and composed their own celebratory verses for commemorative presentation prints, called surimono. Typically distributed in playful competition at the New Year, and in keeping with the bright but reverent tone of this sacred season, kyoka surimono made a game of linking, through layers of words and images, the forms and figures of the contemporary world to the timeless icons and archetypes of Japan’s cultural memory. This merger of past and present, so perfectly suited to the ritual timeliness of the New Year holiday, was in fact already implicit in kyoka, which relied on the structure, diction, devices, and revered status of the ancient, courtly art of waka poetry, applying them, with pleasure and humor in often incongruous connections, to the subject matter of everyday, contemporary life. Kyoka surimono, although constituting a new form, were designed to suggest courtly poetic messages and ritual presentations. Employing exceptionally refined and gilt materials, coloring, calligraphic style, and layout allowed their designers to draw directly from the resonance of these elegant and religious structures, and thereby raise themselves and their creations to an exalted past. This dual nature of kyoka surimono, simultaneously past-based and present-oriented, brings to these works their unique complexity, material richness and special sense of depth—as well as transformational power.
This exhibition, drawn from a single private collection, examines surimono in relation to concepts of time, place, and entity, analyzing how surimono take on these terms of reality and manipulate them according to their makers’ interests. Organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, the exhibition is supported by a grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Due to the size of the collection and light-sensitivity of the prints, the exhibition will be displayed in two rotations. The first part will remain on view through December 7 and the second part will be shown from December 9 to January 4. We are grateful to the Gloria and Horace Becker for sharing their prints with the public and for their financial support of the catalogue.
Guest curator / Japanese Studies Bibliographer, Cornell University Library
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art, Johnson Museum