Start | Supporting programme | Symposium | Open Day
Surimono – The Art of Allusion
in Japanese Prints

Surimono -
The Art of Allusion in Japanese Prints

The exhibition presents 120 Japanese colour woodblock prints which were published by circles of poets as particularly precious and luxurious private editions (surimono). The collection of the artist Marino Lusy (1880-1954) owned by the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich has been on permanent loan at the Museum Rietberg since 2005, where it was studied by an international research team headed by John Carpenter, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. The Lusy Collection is among the most important Surimono collections in Europe, and its out standing quality and excellent state of conservation testify to Lusy’s impressive connoisseurship and expertise.

Part I of the collection was first presented as a special exhibition at the Museum Rietberg from December 7, 2008 to April 13, 2009. The Cologne exhibition shows part II.

The Marino Lusy Collection

The artist, Marino Lusy (1880-1954), who was born in Switzerland lived in Trieste, Paris and Montreux. After studying architecture he worked in the field of etching. He undertook extensive journeys to both the Middle East, the Far East and Africa. Lusy was a Japanophile. Some of his graphic works appear to have been directly influenced by Japanese models. The luxurious small-scale surimono form the focus of his collection. He bought most of the leaves at auctions and from dealers in Paris in the  1920s and 30s. Lusy devoted himself with considerable intensity to the study of the language, art and culture of Japan and maintained contact with Japan specialists, who helped him to decipher artists' signatures and poetic inscriptions. He strove to decipher the image content and understand the relationship between the poems and the scenes depicted. Thus, he was one of the first Europeans who endeavoured to penetrate the pictures and texts on surimono.


Surimono, literally “printed things”, are privately published small-scale coloured wood block prints, which were made in limited editions for a restricted circle. They fascinate the observer by the subtlety of their aesthetic design and the use of sophisticated printing techniques, for example the multi-coloured “brocade print” (nishiki-e). In addition, glittering specks of gold, silver or copper sprinkled on the surface make them masterpieces of Japanese art.

Surimono were often presented as a greeting at the New Year or served as an announcement or reminder of certain events such as private celebrations or musical and theatrical events. Stylistically the artists commissioned to design surimono followed the style typical of the commercial woodblock ukiyo-e, literally “images of the floating world”. Clearly outlined pictorial elements, impressive compositions, the decorative two-dimensional design of the garments and stylised representation of the faces are characteristic of this style.

Apart from these privately distributed individual prints, since the early 19th century all the privately published illustrated calendars (e-goyomi), which follow the traditional Japanese moon calendar, were called surimono .In the calendar leaves certain motifs in the decoration of garments or other pictorial elements allude to the cycle of the twelve zodiac signs and the numbers of the short and long moon months.

From the middle of the 18th century the popularity of kyōka poetry led people from the most varied social strata to join circles of poets. The groups of poets (gawa) andcircles of poets (ren), which sprang up everywhere, included the Go-gawa, Taiko-gawa, Yomo-gawa and the Katushika-ren and Shippō-ren and at the beginning of the 19th century became the main source of commissions for surimono. Numerous  prints from the late 18th and early 19th centuries contain jocular poems with 31 syllables (kyōka). There is a reciprocal and subtle relationship between these poems and the image motifs. The virtually square (c. 20 x 18 cm) form of the poetry print (shikishiban) became established as the standard format for surimono.


Among the surimono in the Lusy collection there are numerous representations of women. The magnificently clad beauties (bijin) are geishas and courtesans from the  amusement district of Yoshiwara, ladies in waiting or middle-class women. They are often illustrated in a graceful pose while engaged in domestic chores associated with the advent of the New Year. The individual prints commissioned as a series mostly show women playing musical instruments, writing or composing poetry, after their bath, when dressing and doing their hair or when preparing and serving tea, sake or food, or smoking a pipe. Often the prints are furnished with New Year attributes. At the same time, there are some surimono with a representation of ordinary women from the lower social classes who are shown carrying out their work as dyers, mussel gatherers, wood sellers, itinerant musicians and prostitutes.

Mythological Figures

In the portrayal of gods of good fortune, immortals or other motifs from Chinese and Japanese mythology on surimono, artists often adopted the traditional styles of Japanese and Chinese figure painting, transferring them to the wood block print. Some depictions are imbued with a subtle humour, where, as in the print after Utagawa Toyohiro (died 1829), the lucky god Ebisu is portrayed as a lecherous old man accompanied by a courtesan from the amusement district.

Scholars and Poets

In the groups and circles of poets, the main source of commissions for surimono, Japanese and Chinese poets and literary themes which had been handed down for centuries, were held in high esteem. Numerous surimonos  either as an individual print or as a series depict famous male and female poets or historic personalities in the guise of a scholar. The scholarly culture highly esteemed in East Asia is closely associated with the writing implements brush, ink, inkstone and paper. These are called “The four precious objects of the scholar's studio” and are also an important theme in surimono. Thus, Yashima Gakutei (c. 1786 – c.1855) skilfully combines this pictorial theme with the portrayal of famous Japanese writers and scholars in his eponymous series.

On many prints, attributes, animals or décors placed as if at random refer to characteristic personality traits, skills or traditional biographical details from the life of the poet portrayed. In the portrait of the Chinese poet Lin Heijing (967-1028) by Totoya Hokkei (1780 – 1850), the design for which was commissioned by the Hanazono circle, the crane stands for Lin's love of this bird and the blossom décor on his garment represents his admiration for plum blossom. Both motifs may also be interpreted as the wish for a long life (crane) and greetings for the New Year (plum blossom). 

Men in female form (mitate-e)

Mitate as a stylistic element of parody, whichalso occurs as a device in lyrical poetry, is frequently to be found among courtesan prints. The women depicted actually represent certain male figures such as scholars, warriors, gods or immortals. The type of representation and the addition of certain attributes create a whole complex of allusions to Japanese and Chinese mythology, scenes from classical Japanese literature or concrete historical events.

The two seven-part surimono series by the artist Yashima Gakutei (c. 1786 – c. 1855) are in composition and printing technique outstanding examples of mitate-e. Courtesans from the amusement district of Yoshiwara represent seven Daoist immortals in the one series and the seven gods of good fortune in the other. Both series are almost completely represented in the Lusy Collection. The special nature of the mitate-surimono lies in the fact that the use of the stylistic device of allusive parody makes it especially difficult to decipher the theme of the image. Only an understanding of the inscriptions and the complementary attributes and décors  reveals to the observer which male figure is concealed behind the gracefully posing courtesans.

The deciphering of the mitate-e with its wealth of allusions held a particular fascination for the members of poets' circles, who were well-versed in literature.

Actors (yakusha-e)

Unlike the older and more aristocratic Nō- theatre, the popular kabuki-theatre played an important role in the life of the urban population. It developed in the 17th century from the puppet theatre, dance mimes and burlesques. After an edict which made it illegal for women and young men to appear on stage, the female parts were also played by men, the onnagata. Visual effects played an important role in the mis-en-scène and in the costumes of kabuki performances. The actors had an elaborate and sophisticated repertoire of gestures. They have often been immortalised in woodblock prints, where they are represented in a characteristic pose (mie).

Alongside historical topics, kabuki also took up contemporary political power struggles and intrigues. From the late 17th to the late 19th century, the most influential kabuki artists in the capital city of Edo came from the Ichikawa dynasty of actors. Among the surimono prints from the Lusy collection there are numerous portraits of the famous actor Ichikawa Danjūrō VII (1791-1859) depicting him in various different roles. Many of the designs for these prints are by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864), who specialised in this subject matter.   

Heroes and warriors (musha-e)

With few exceptions, the heroes in Surimono prints are men. They are popular characters from Chinese and Japanese historical literature or from legends and novels.

The protagonists from the Chinese heroic epic “Water Margin”, also known as “Outlaws of the Marsh” (Chin: shuihuzhuan, Jap: suikoden), are a popular topic. In the five-part series by the artist Totoya Hokkei (1780-1850) for example, each of the five muscular outlaws exuding vitality is associated with one of the five elements (fire, water, earth, wood and metal). This exhibition will present three of the heroes: Song Jiang (fire), Li Kui (metal) and Zhang Sun (water).

The pictorial language of the series “Twenty-Four Generals” by the artist Yashima Gakutei (c. 1786- c. 1855) is different. It deals with a total of twenty-four popular episodes from Japanese military history and from historical legends of the Edo period (1603-1868) and of a more distant past. Some of the prints represent generals in Samurai armour. Leading members of the Katsushika-ren circle of poets were descendants of Samurai families, whose role models came alive again in woodcut prints. Four prints of this series are represented in the Cologne exhibition.

Still Lifes

The earliest Japanese still lifes show exotic objects and inventions from Europe,  knowledge of which came to Japan via China. Popular motifs are English clocks, telescopes and microscopes. Initially, only individual objects were represented in the still lifes. Later, they depicted complex arrangements of both everyday-objects and valuables. Most of these can be interpreted as symbolically encoded New Year greetings. Sea creatures such as tuna fish, octopus and bream, depicted in a still-life arrangement, refer to typical Japanese New Year dishes, as in the print after the design by Setsuri (active 1820s). Arrangements including musical instruments and  poetic inscriptions usually allude to spring.

Depictions of plants such as flowering cherry and plum sprigs, pine and bamboo are also common in surimono prints and are associated in Japan with the symbolism of spring and thus with the start of the New Year. Naturalistic representations of animals or allusions concealed in the ornamentation refer to one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). These allusions reveal to the educated observer the year at the beginning of which the surimono print was published.   


Details of landscapes form the background to figural depictions in numerous surimono. There are, however, prints where the representation of nature is of greater importance. The vast majority of these prints are not representations of nature per se, but include details alluding to famous gardens and other places of interest in Japan. Often the representation of people is incorporated in the scenery. The Fujisan – Japan's highest and, mythologically speaking, most important mountain – is a popular background motif.

Surimono prints with a depiction of landscape transfer various different traditions of landscape painting into the medium of the coloured wood block print. The graphic interpretation with an emphasis on contours, as in Totoya Hokkei's (1780-1850) series “Journey to Enoshima”, is in keeping with the style of the ukiyo-e masters. By contrast, the adaptation of a sophisticated brush and ink technique with subtly nuanced ink washes, used for instance by Tsutsumi Tōrin (active 1780-1820), is based on monochrome ink paintings in the Chinese style. In addition, there are lyrical compositions, such as the print “Plover flying over Waves” after Totoya Hokkei, and highly stylised, decorative interpretations of the typical landscape motif “water and rocks”.