While some of the art in our collections was created to hang on palace walls or in museums, other works are at their best when viewed on an intimate, personal level. One such example is a small surimono woodblock print designed by Yashima Gakutei around 1824. It features a beautiful courtesan clothed in heavy, cascading robes. Surimono (literally “printed thing”) are a genre of Japanese woodblock prints of the Edo period (1615–1868). These small works on paper, many about eight inches square, are like small jewels, shimmering in the hand when turned in the light, revealing their various meanings and secrets only after extended contemplation.
Unlike prints that were produced for the general market, surimono prints were privately commissioned for a variety of purposes, including invitations to performances, the celebration of Kabuki actors by their fans, and for exchange as New Year’s greetings by amateur poetry groups. Many were printed with lavish techniques such as metallic pigments, embossing, and burnishing. Indeed, the printing in this work is a tour de force of woodblock technology: the multiple layers of kimono fabric printed in contrasting patterns of rose, red, delicate blue, and rich green create a riotous effect, while overlaid designs in deeply embossed metallic pigments suggest intricate embroidery.
Beneath the beauty of the printing, however, lies hidden meaning. The woman turns her head over her shoulder, holding a small ball and shuttlecock (objects associated with the New Year) below her chin. Upon closer inspection, we begin to notice the insistently repeating designs of stylized clouds in the various fabrics of her elaborately decorated kimono that trails onto the floor behind her. The insignia of the poetry group that commissioned the work (printed in red under the title cartouche in the upper right) is also hidden in the silver pattern at the shoulder of her robe—a small surprise for those “in the know.”
The details in the image hint at a loftier subject—that of the legendary Chinese Daoist immortal Dongfang Shuo stealing the peaches of immortality from the Queen Mother of the West. His fabled escape with the treasured peaches is alluded to in the courtesan’s grasping of the peach-shaped ball and shuttlecock, fleeing on the highly decorative mass of clouds on the hem of her kimono. The accompanying poem reinforces the connection, comparing the allure of the beautiful courtesan to the tempting peaches.
This print is one of a set of seven (Harvard has six); each design ingeniously includes subtle references to other Chinese immortals. The sophisticated audience would have found this juxtaposition of high culture (the Chinese immortals) and low culture (courtesans) delightfully amusing, no doubt recognizing the parallels between the supernatural powers of the Chinese immortals and the powerful charms of a beautiful woman.
To view this dazzling work (and others like it) up close, visitors can make an appointment in our Art Study Center.
Quintana Heathman is the curatorial fellow in Japanese art at the Harvard Art Museums.