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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: All works reproduced in this article are included in the exhibition and are in the Smart Museum's collection (Gifts of Brooks McCormick Jr.).

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Features ::

Designed to impress

Intimate, intricate, and long ignored, Shijo surimono are woodcuts that reveal a vanished Japanese culture.

Just 60 years after the last Shijo surimono were penned, published, and passed around in exquisitely ornamented envelopes, the literary culture these woodcut prints recall has vanished. From the early 1700s until the catastrophe of World War II, Japan’s social elite commissioned costly and intricate surimono—a fusion of poetry and painting steeped in symbolic imagery—to announce weddings, births, and New Year’s parties. Grieving relatives memorialized the dead on these husks of mullberry paper, and poets publicized poetry contests. Artists and Kabuki actors circulated surimono upon the opening of a new theater or the adoption of a new, more auspicious, name.

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“These are tremendous historical documents—we find names of actors and artists in surimono that you see nowhere else,” says Hans Thomsen, assistant professor of art history and curator of The Poetry of Shijo Surimono, an exhibit running through December 11 at the Smart Museum of Art. “Everybody who was somebody—artists, intellectuals, emperors, sumo wrestlers, samurai—and everybody who wanted to be somebody participated in this tradition.”

Yet these privately commissioned surimono have been largely ignored and routinely misinterpreted. Whole boxes of them languish in museum basements across the globe, a fact that baffles Thomsen. As he sees it, Shijo surimono illuminate countess cultural mysteries.