Bushido or “the way of the warrior” was a unique philosophy of life and conduct based on Zen Buddhism and Shinto, that was embraced by the samurai from the Muromachi period (14th – 16th c). It stresses frugality, loyalty, mastery in martial arts, and honor unto death. One of the subtler aspects associated with it included an openness to animism, a “becoming-other” leading to supernatural powers. This is represented through historical legends involving samurai, often enacted in kabuki plays and depicted in paintings. Images depicting famous warriors in legendary historical situations formed a common theme in surinomo [more on surimono], since they were mainly patronized by samurai. Our selection includes works on this theme by great artists, such as Katshusita Hokusai [more on Hokusai].
Surimono were woodblock prints privately commissioned by wealthy merchants and poetry societies in the 18th and 19th c. The typical surimono were made almost square in a size of about 8”x9”. These very limited edition prints were exchanged within elite circles for special occasions such as the New Year. Surimono blended illustration and poetry and were printed on a thick paper with a lavish use of technical embellishments including silver, gold, bronze powder, lacquer and embossing. The poem accompanying the illustration was usually a short comic verse of 31 syllables called kyoka. Several surimono are attributed to Katsushika Hokusai and his students, famous among whom was Hokkei.
Sometime in the 1880’s publishers took the earlier surimono designs and printed them in a number of small edition sets. They were mostly sold to the early Western traveler to Japan and like the original surimono, were exquisitely printed with embellishments.
Since surimono were produced as New Year gifts, they often contained references to the designation of the year in the Chinese zodiac. In some cases, the prints featured the zodiac animal of the year, but more often the animal was inconspicuously woven into the illustration. In some cases, two animals are depicted signifying the year just ended and the year beginning. Some surimono featured kabuki actors in samurai roles and some dealt with legendary or historic events featuring samurai.
Hokusai and Surimono
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is one of the most famous woodblock (ukiyo-e) painters of the 18th and 19th c. Hokusai started as an apprentice printmaker, going on to make paintings of kabuki actors and geishas, the traditional subjects of 18th c. ukiyo-e. On being expelled from his teacher’s studio after his death, Hokusai changed his subject matter to landscapes and genre scenes, becoming the first ukiyo-e artist to do so. Along with Ando Hiroshige, Hokusai is best known for these themes. At this time, he painted a number of surimono as part of the Tawaraya school. Later, he left this school to become independent and gradually collected a group of his own students. A number of these students are known mainly for their surimono. Perhaps the best known of these are Totoya Hokkei and Yanagawa Shigenobu.