In this episode, Clare Pollard, the Curator of Japanese Art, and researcher Kiyoko Hanaoka introduce us to surimono prints, which combined poems and picture puzzles in beautiful objects designed to be exchanged as gifts by members of Japanese poetry clubs. Join them as they decode the clues in these complex and beautiful prints.
The priest Sōjō Henjō, who fell – a woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyasu (1794–1832)
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Ono no Tōfu – a woodblock print by Totoya Hokkei (1780 - 1850)
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If you want to take a closer look at the objects mentioned in this episode, you can view them at the links above. Visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/objects-out-loud
Hosted by Lucie Dawkins, with Clare Pollard and Kiyoko Hanaoka.
The producer is Lucie Dawkins.
About Objects Out Loud: From a magician who inspired Shakespeare, and poems woven into Japanese prints, to manuscripts illuminated with the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, this new podcast series will delve into the poetry and literature hidden in the collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Imagine that we are visitors to Tokyo, 200 years ago - although at this point in time, it has different name. Edo. It's one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world and it prides itself on its fashionable and sophisticated urban culture, with an endless choice of kabuki theatres, restaurants, tea houses, boat trips, firework displays, festivals and concerts for its residents to enjoy. We’ve picked the perfect moment to visit, in the middle of the celebrations for the lunar New Year...We follow an excited crowd into a teahouse. Around us, the room is crammed with people from all walks of life - men and women mingle together on the tatami mats, a famous actor sits in the corner chatting to his fans, and aristocratic samurai rub shoulders with members of Edo’s working class. The room is buzzing with anticipation.
What has brought all these people together? Well, we have found ourselves in a poetry club, one of many in Edo. At last, several poets arrive, carrying bulging satchels. This is what everyone has been waiting for - their New Year’s gifts. The poets open the satchels, and carefully slide out sheet after sheet of their poems, printed with vibrant illustrations. And not just any illustrations, but picture puzzles, filled with clues intended only for the eyes of the members of this club. Let’s take a closer look.
This is Objects Out Loud, an audio adventure through the poetry and stories hidden in the galleries of the Ashmolean Museum. Today’s episode is all about poems and riddles.
We’re going deep behind the scenes of the Ashmolean, to find a treasure trove of these intriguing objects in the museum’s storerooms. Here's Clare Pollard, the curator of Japanese Art, to tell us more.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century poetry clubs were all the rage for the aspiring Japanese intellectual around town. In elegant restaurants and tea houses around the country, poets from all walks of life – merchants, samurai, priests, artists, actors, publishers and geisha, men and women alike – would get together to read and compose poems. The big season for poetry parties was at the New Year, but keen poets also met to mark birthdays, retirements or other special occasions.
At a poetry gathering, normal life could be put on hold. Members could forget the strict social hierarchies and endless rules and regulations imposed by Japan’s oppressive samurai rulers and immerse themselves in cultured discussion and good company. They even selected poetic pseudonyms for themselves, assuming another persona entirely as they entered the refined world of kyōka, or ‘crazy verse’ – the 31-syllable poetry form in vogue at the time.
Kyōka ‘crazy’ poems weren’t really very crazy at all, as they were based on classical court poetry of earlier centuries and were full of elegant seasonal imagery and learned allusions to classical literature and history. But they did play around with the rules and conventions of traditional poetry and were an altogether more light-hearted affair. Rather than tackling heartfelt emotions or profound philosophical ideas, kyōka were designed to show off the poets’ knowledge and refinement and were stuffed with witty puns and wordplay.
But these 19th-century culture vultures didn’t stop at composing poetry. The leaders of the poetry groups would also select the best poems for publication and commission leading woodblock print designers to provide elegant illustrations. The illustrated poem-prints were then exchanged among members of the group and distributed to friends and acquaintances on festive occasions, especially at the New Year.
These presentation prints were called surimono (meaning simply ‘something printed’). Nowadays, surimono tend to be appreciated for their visual appeal, as they are often exquisitely printed, with intricately carved designs, subtle colouration and lots of rich metallic pigments. Unlike the commercially published prints of landscapes, actors and courtesans that were made by artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige around the same time, surimono were never intended for sale to the public and so money wasn’t an issue – they were very much luxury, private publications – given as special gifts to like-minded friends).
But it’s important to remember that, beautiful as these prints often were, it was actually the poems that came first. The images were designed to complement the poems, and could also add a fresh perspective or surprising new layers of meaning to the poems, turning the surimono into a kind of pictorial puzzle. It was the relationship between the poems and the accompanying images that was the essence of surimono. Poets would enjoy poring over the print, appreciating all the different interlocking elements: the ingenious poetry, the delightful images and the links between the two (perhaps a little like doing a very fiendish cryptic crossword with an added layer of visual clues to decode).
So, while the de luxe quality of the printing itself gave surimono the feel of a special, significant gift, their cryptic content also created an intimate connection between the giver and the receiver, uniting them as like-minded, sophisticated members of the same exclusive intellectual club. While kyōka poetry groups were remarkably open in the way they cut across class and regional divides, their members had the satisfaction of knowing that only they were clever enough to get the obscure jokes and references.
Unlike commercial prints of the time, which were often published in their thousands, surimono were produced in very limited editions, sometimes of just a few dozen or so. The Ashmolean is lucky enough to own over 100 of these rare and lovely prints, but all of these secret codes, private allusions, and poetry club in-jokes make them very challenging to display. How can you write a label if you don’t actually understand what’s going on? We’re about to take a look at two surimono prints from the Ashmolean’s collection, which I think give a good idea of some of the challenges. – and pleasures – of interpreting these astonishingly complex works of art. You’ll find images of them in the podcast notes if you’d like to get the feel of the decoding process as we go along.
Our first surimono is one of my absolute favourites. It was commissioned in the 1820s by the Sugawara poetry circle in Japan’s largest city, Edo (modern-day Tokyo). It depicts a young female tightrope walker mid-performance, her checked robe tucked up and an expression of great concentration on her face. She daringly lifts one foot from the rope, a parasol in one hand and a fan in the other to help her balance. The toes of her other foot grip the rope tightly.
It’s a small print, around 20cm square – just the right size to be held in the hands. Imagine the viewers’ pleasure at receiving this print. Holding their surimono they would take in the antics of the acrobat at a glance but before studying the image in detail their eyes would first be caught by the title of the print, outlined in black in the top right-hand corner (remember that Japanese is read from right to left and this is the way a print is viewed too). The title is ‘Henjō, who has fallen’ and the print is part of a series in which six great classical Japanese poets are represented by ordinary people. This use of common people from the present to depict famous and revered historical or literary figures from the past is a kind of gentle parody. It’s called mitate in Japanese.
The young woman balancing precariously on the tightrope represents the ninth-century poet and Buddhist priest Henjō. The well-read recipient of the surimono would immediately know that the title refers to one of Henjō’s most famous poems, included in a tenth-century imperial anthology called the Kokinshu. The poem was composed when Henjō fell off his horse because he was so entranced by the sight of a field of beautiful yellow maiden flowers (a kind of valerian). This original poem itself contained a pun, with the word ‘fallen’ also giving the sense of moral downfall (with the priest Henjō being tempted from his vows of chastity by beautiful maidens).The artist who designed this surimono, Kuniyasu, has decided to interpret the idea of falling quite literally, by illustrating an acrobat in real physical danger of falling off a rope. The educated literati types who received this surimono would quickly make the connection between the image and the poet Henjō.
The next part of the puzzle was the two poems, one written to the right and one to the left of the illustration. I would like to hand you over now to researcher Hanaoka Kiyoko, who’s studied the Ashmolean’s collection of surimono in depth, deciphering the delicate cursive script and translating the complex poems – achieving the almost impossible task of finding a way into the minds of those nineteenth-century intellectuals and teasing out their obscure in-jokes and long-forgotten references.
The first poem is by Sairaikyo.
Hanagasa wa ume ni sasasete migaruni zo taniwatari suru uguisu no koro Leaving the flower umbrella at the plum tree, the warbler flies lightly across the valley in the springtime.
The second poem is by Shakuyakutei
Yūhi omo manekuka to miru ōgidako nishi ni otsuru o oshimu osanago A kite, shaped like a fan, appears to invite the evening sun – it falls in the west and a small child laments
So what do the poems mean?
The reference in the second poem to the ‘falling’ of the setting sun is an oblique reference to Henjo’s famous fall, while the first poem is peppered with references to spring. Because most surimono were distributed at the New Year, both the poems and images on surimono were full of seasonal allusions. Until the 1870s Japan celebrated the lunar New Year, as China still does. This usually fell in early February, and so plum blossom was a symbol of the season, as was the warbler, whose song heralded the beginning of spring much like a cuckoo does in Europe. The emphasis on spring imagery, and other references to new beginnings, good health, wealth and long life which often accompanied them, was rooted in the idea that the very act of using auspicious, positive words would bring about the realisation of these good things.
After unravelling all of the clever allusions in the poems, it would have been time for the viewer to look back at the image, to see how it linked to the words. Perhaps the warbler crossing the valley in the first poem is like the young woman crossing the tightrope. And Kuniyasu has transformed the fan-shaped kite of the second poem into an open fan in the woman’s hand - decorated with orange rays like the setting sun. He’s also picked up on the reference to the ‘flower umbrella’ in the first poem, giving the acrobat a parasol as a balancing aid.
All these subtle echoes and parallels between the text and the image were gradually revealed as viewers absorbed themselves in the print. And there was a huge pleasure to be found in cracking the code.
Now let me give you a second example. Here we find ourselves with the poets of the Hanazono poetry circle, who’ve created a surimono about another famous poet, called Ono no Tōfū. Ono no Tōfū was a 10th-century court calligrapher, as well as a poet, and the surimono illustrates a famous anecdote about him. Once, the story goes, Ono no Tōfū became depressed by the inadequacy of his calligraphy. Setting out for a walk in the spring rain, he was considering abandoning his craft completely when he caught sight of a frog attempting to leap up onto the overhanging branch of a willow tree – jumping up again and again. After repeated attempts, the frog finally succeeded in reaching the branch. Just like Robert the Bruce and his spider, Ono no Tōfū was inspired by the frog’s perseverance and decided not to give up after all. He went on to become known as one of the greatest calligraphers of his era.
So what did the Hanazono group of poets make of the story? Let’s listen to the two poems in the surimono.
[The first poem is by] Shunkōtei Misako
Haru no no ni ouru tsukushi o tsumitamete fude no shiri toru mi towa nariken In the spring fields I gathered horsetail ferns – now I am a teacher of poetry and writing
[The second poem is by] Shōnoya Tomohiro
Aoyagi no ito ni kawazu no utabukuro nuu kagemizu ni miete une une A thread of green willow is sewing a pouch like a frog’s throat sac or a bag for sheets of poetry; its reflection ripples on the surface of the water
Neither poem actually mentions Ono no Tōfū by name – that would be far too obvious for any self-respecting kyōka poet! But because of the references to calligraphy, poetry, frogs and willow branches, literary-minded readers would instantly have understood the allusion. The poems are full of puns and double meanings. In the first poem, for instance, we have a reference to horsetail ferns: not only are horsetail ferns shaped like brushes, but the Japanese word for a horsetail fern includes the character for ‘brush’. In the second poem, the word used for a poetry bag, ‘utabukuro’, is a pun with a triple meaning. It refers firstly to the pouch used by aristocratic poets of the past for their poetry drafts, but also to satchels for storing surimono (cleverly overlaying contemporary surimono practice with ancient courtly tradition). And the word has a third meaning here – it’s also the throat sac of a frog, which leads neatly back to Ono no Tōfū. Once again, the poems are brimming with spring imagery. The image of green willow was a particular favourite with Japanese poets – simply adding the words ‘green willow’ to a poem instantly gave it a cultivated air of seasonal resonance.
The two poems are beautifully illustrated by the print designer Hokkei, a student of the artist Hokusai, who you might know from his famous print of the great wave. Most of the artists who provided designs for surimono were already well-established professionals in the field of commercial prints and many were themselves members of the poetry clubs that commissioned the designs. Hokkei often collaborated with the Hanazono poetry circle and together they created many lovely surimono. Here Ono no Tōfū stands by a bend in a river, dressed in elaborate courtly robes with a black court hat on his head, gazing down at a little green frog leaping heroically up towards an overhead branch.
The scene’s depicted in soft, delicate colours, the figures delineated in subtle grey outlines rather than with the bold black lines that characterised the brighter, brasher commercial prints - the understated colour scheme deliberately designed to give a refined feel. The patterns on Ono no Tōfū’s garments are picked out in luxurious gold and silver pigments, and a closer look reveals that parts of his inner robe and the hilt of his sword have intricate embossed, or ‘blind printed’, patterns. ‘Blind printing’ was a sophisticated technique in which paper is pressed onto carved but un-inked blocks to create texture – and was only possible on thick, expensive paper.
The full effect of these luxurious printing techniques could only be appreciated when the surimono was held in the hand and studied closely. The discovery of a subtly textured collar, or a dusting of glistening mica powder catching the light could provide an element of surprise and enhance the viewer’s enjoyment of the print. Just like the kyōka poems themselves, the images rewarded careful study and appreciation.
Many hands were involved in the making of a surimono. For a print like this one, a representative of the Hanazono poetry group would have commissioned Hokkei to come up with a design, to which a professional calligrapher would add the poetry in elegant cursive script. Once the poet had approved the design, it would then be carved by a block cutter, with the intricate calligraphy often done by a specialist engraver, before being sent to a printer to print up. The inks chosen for surimono – whether red from safflower, blue from dayflower or white from powdered clamshells – were usually of the finest quality, allowing designers to create a wide variety of textures and a subtle gradation of colours, as you see in the river bank and flowing water on the Ono no Tōfū print.
Hokkei has added one more layer of allusion to his design. In 1754, the well-known story of Ono no Tōfū had been adapted for the kabuki stage, with the title ‘The green willow ink stone of Ono no Tōfū’ (spot that seasonal ‘green willow’ reference!). Hokkei depicts the calligrapher striking a theatrical pose wearing the tall wooden clogs of a nineteenth-century kabuki actor and holding a typical kabuki parasol. So his design isn’t just illustrating the original story, but also illustrating the kabuki scene that was based on that original story. Kabuki was an enormously popular entertainment at the time, so we can imagine that members of the Hanazono circle had watched the play and could relive the experience through the surimono they were holding in their hands – this small sheet of paper opening up a whole world of culture and refinement, linking poets, artists and performers of past and present.
It’s this sense of connection that I find so rewarding about surimono. Surimono can be enjoyed at many levels: simply as perfect little jewels of Japanese printmaking, or as intriguing examples of the fun you can have combining text and image, but they are also incredible windows into the minds of those witty and inventive Japanese poets of 200 years ago. The experience of looking really closely at a surimono, of spending time trying to works out at least some of the puzzles and allusions embedded in them, and the amazing sense of satisfaction you get when you spot a clue – puts you right in the shoes of those poets and allows you to travel through history in the most extraordinary way.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode. If you want to look at the tightrope walker and Ono No Tofu with his frog, take a look at the link in the podcast notes. Join us next week for our next poetry adventure. We will be heading into the archives in search of Victorian supermodel, poet, and painter, Lizzie Siddal. Before then, why not take a leaf out the kyoka poets’ book, and share a poem you love with a friend.