With great interest and attention, I attended the Sainsbury Institute Third Thursday lecture given on March 16th by Dr Mary Redfern entitled “Exemplary women, poets and prints – Untangling a surimono series by Yashima Gakutei”. Dr Redfern introduced a luxurious surimono series “Framed Paintings of Women for the Katsushika Circle” (葛飾連額面婦人合 Katsushikaren gakumen fujin awase) in the collections of the Chester Beatty Library. The highly ceremonial surimono series is a glamorous example of prints on metallic background initiated by the Katsushika poetry circle. Dr Redfern gave an insight into the difficulties of the dating of surimono prints, where censor’s seals are absent, and instead a deep understanding of the Japanese zodiac system, Edo Japan literati circles, surimono issuing praxis and previous research of the series in question must be used. It is an outstanding example of a diligent researcher’s attitude and can be an example to young researchers of surimono prints.
The series “Framed Paintings of Women for the Katsushika Circle”, traditionally combining Japanese verses and the surimono genre, is an outstanding example of the collaboration between the literati circles (such as the Bunbunsha group or Katsushika group) and editors of woodblock prints. The author, Yashima Gakutei (1786–1868), the illegitimate son of a samurai, was a respected artist of the time – three examples of his surimono can also be found in the collection of the National Collection in Prague, which naturally drew my attention. A similar collaboration of literati artistic circles observable in the “Framed Paintings of Women for the Katsushika Circle” can be seen in the black-and-white woodblock print book “Detailed Look at Yoshiwara during the Four Seasons in Satirical Poems” (狂歌吉原形四季細見 Kyōka Yoshiwara kata shiki saiken) deposited in the National Gallery Prague, initiated by the Hanagasa circle (Hanagasaren) in 1825.
The delving into the origin of the female figures depicted in this surimono series shown by Dr Redfern was highly profound, as she traced the figures back to their Chinese models and Japanese editions of the original Chinese series. Including the Chinese sources gives us a broad picture of the series and contextualises the choosing of the female figures on a grand scale – not to mention the fact that brave, loyal and charming women were an attractive and up-to-date topic.
Putting the attractivity of the prints aside, there is also an on-demand, practical side to them. Identifying the “Framed Paintings of Women for the Katsushika Circle” series as calendar surimono prints, Dr Redfern gave suggestions as to the identification of the round embossed metallic marks in the frames of the prints, especially in two of the prints (the print showing the mother of Kusunoki Masatsura and the print showing Tsujigimi Seki). The mark in the Masatsura’s mother print was suggested to be a flaming jewel, and therefore a mark indicating the poets Karindō Itomichi and Takara no Funezumi. The mark in the Tsujigimi Seki print was suggested to have the shape of a koto bridge and indicate the Shōfūdai poetry circle, even if the koto bridge symbol is commonly associated with the Hisakataya poetry circle. That is certainly a fresh and erudite way of looking at surimono prints and leaves us with further questions to ponder.
Dr. Redfern’s lecture proved that formerly slightly neglected surimono prints are recently appreciated beyond their commercial character and widely studied for their artistic and historical value. I am very grateful to the Sainsbury Institute for making Dr Redfern’s lecture happen, and glad that I was able to participate. Last but not least, I would like to congratulate Dr Redfern on her research and wish her all the best in her future scientific and curatorial efforts.
Jana Ryndová, Ph.D. is Curator of the Collection of Asian Art, National Gallery Prague
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