Surimono and Fan-Prints

THE subjects illustrated in Japanese prints may be generally classified under the following heads: (i) Theatrical scenes and portraits of actors; (ii) Portraits of geisha and courtesans, full-length figure and head studies; (iii) Illustrations of historical and legendary stories, mythical heroes, and the like; (iv) Landscape. A further division might be added under the heading of ghosts, a subject which certain artists, particularly Kuniyoshi, seem to have strongly favoured. Surimono form a class to themselves, and are of such a varied nature that it is impossible to group them under any particular heading.

What they were will be best indicated by saying that they were like nothing so much as our Christmas, New Year, Birthday, or other form of greeting card, while the designs on them were as diverse.

They were, as a rule, only printed on commission, and the regular designers of colour-prints were often requested by their patrons to supply the drawing for them; many again were produced by those who used them, which accounts for the appearance on some surimono of unknown signatures, that is of people who were not professional artists.

Surimono are almost square in shape, measuring about 8 in. by 7 in., and sometimes they are made up of multiples of this size, in the form of triptychs or two vertical ones. Particular care was lavished both by the artist, the engraver, and the printer upon their production, the decorative effect being increased by the use of gold, silver, bronze, and mother-of-pearl, while relief-printing (gauffrage) was liberally employed. They were also, as a rule, printed on a much better quality paper, being thicker and softer than the ordinary prints sold in the street. Some collectors, indeed, reject surimono on the ground that they are not true examples of art, because artistic effect is produced by mere complication of technique, so that the medium employed, instead of the result, has become their sole object. Even so, fine surimono are very beautiful, while they show the skill of the engraver and the printer at its highest level.

Some of the finest surimono were produced by pupils of Hokusai, who excelled even their master in this respect. Of these Hokkei, Gakutei, Shinsai, and Yanagawa Shigenobu were the chief.

Another special form of print was that intended for mounting on a fan. Fan-prints were in two shapes, the uchiwa, for the round, non-folding fan, and the ogi, or folding fan. Owing to the uses to which they were put, which of necessity condemned them to a relatively short existence, fan-prints are not common, but the uchiwa shape is the one most frequently met with (see Plate 6).

Most of those which have survived to our day are ones which have not been mounted on fans, but occasionally one finds a fan-print which has been so mounted, showing the marks of the ribs, but has been taken off and preserved.


To revert to our classification, prints combining both figure-studies and landscape are also found, where beautiful women are compared to beautiful scenery, though sometimes the connection between the two is not very apparent, or is too subtle for the European to detect. In such prints the landscape is often relegated to a small inset view, or it may occupy the whole of the upper half of the picture.

It is the common experience of many collectors that it is through the landscape designs of Hiroshige they are first attracted to these colour-prints. The reason for this is well put by E. F. Strange, in the Victoria and Albert Museum handbook on Japanese Colour-Prints' [1] (p. 96), from which we take the liberty to quote as follows :

Japanese colour-prints devoted to landscape form a class apart in the art of the world. There is nothing else like them; neither in the highly idealistic and often lovely abstractions of the aristocratic painters of Japan nor in the more imitative and, it must be said, more meaningless transcripts from nature of European artists. The colour-print, as executed by the best men of the Japanese popular school, occupies an intermediate place; perhaps thus furnishing a reason why we Westerns so easily appreciate it. Its imagery and sentiment are elementary in the eyes of the native critic of Japanese high art; its attempts at realism are in his eyes mere evidence of vulgarity. On the other hand, these very qualities endear it to us. We can understand the first, without the long training in symbolism which is the essential of refinement to an educated man of the extreme East. And the other characteristic forms, in our eyes, a leading recommendation. In short, the landscapes of artists such as Hiroshige approach more nearly to our own standards, and are thus more easily acceptable to us than anything else in the pictorial arts of China and Japan; while they have all the fascination of a strange technique, a bold and undaunted convention, and a superb excellence of composition not too remote in principle from our own.

It seems, therefore, convenient to deal with our last class of subject first, namely landscape, as constituting the most appropriate nucleus in the formation of a collection, though historically landscape marks the final years of the Ukiyoye school. Beginning, then, with the landscape designs of Hiroshige and Hokusai, we will afterwards pass on to the consideration of our other subjects, actor-portraits and theatrical scenes, portraits of women, and illustrations of stories and legends.

[1] Japanese Colour-Prints, by Edward F. Strange. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. 4th ed., 1913.