Surimono are privately issued Japanese prints for occasions such as New Year greetings. Surimono are a bit different from commercially published ukiyo-e.
Suri is the Japanese word for printed and mono means thing - surimono, the printed thing.
The artists were not restricted by any commercial aspects other than the wishes of the commissioner. Therefore surimono were often produced as real deluxe Japanese prints - with an abundant use of lavish gold and silver pigments, elaborate embossing and more such luxury features. And only the best papers were used.
First of all wealthy people. Another important group were poets who commissioned surimono for circulation in their poet clubs.
Surimono were published for New Year greetings, the Cherry Blossom season, for special events, announcements and as gifts.
The typical Japanese surimono print size is shikishiban, a nearly square size of about 8 by 9 inches (20.5 by 23 cm).
Most ukiyo-e artists created surimono. Ukiyo-e printmaking until the end of the nineteenth century was considered more as a crafts business and not as "holy art". So why should an artist reject a commission? Some artists were more active in this genre of course. Gakutei (1768-1868), Hokkei (1780-1850), Shinsai (1764-1820) and Hokusai (1760-1849) should be mentioned.
Surimono date back as early as ca. 1760 and were in use until around the end of the Edo period (1868). The prime time was the first half of the nineteenth century.
All subjects can be found on surimono. Popular were lucky symbols, the zodiacal animals, nature life, historical events and kabuki scenes. Surimono often have extensive writings.
In most cases these are short poems written in old Japanese characters. The old characters are difficult to read. Reading these poems requires a person with a scholarly training in old Japanese writings.
In the 1890s publishers took early 19th century surimono designs from artists like Gakutei or Hokkei, cut new blocks and printed them in sets of 50 or 100 sets. They were sold to Western tourists in Japan. These prints are very well made. The only difference is the paper, which is not as soft as 1820 hosho. And like the originals, these prints have all the lavish features like blind printing, valuable gold and silver pigments.
For some of these designs the originals do not exist any more, which makes them even more interesting. These Meiji copies are ranked from A to D, A being the best print quality and D the lowest. Mainly A-copies have become accepted collectors' items. There is nothing wrong with them and they are of course cheaper than early 19th century originals.
Author: Dieter Wanczura