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Sea Horses and Jewel Beetles

Katsushika Hokusai
ca. 1822

This surimono print was privately commissioned for the 1822 year of the Horse, as part of a series of at least thirty surimono issued for the Yomo-gawa poetry group. Referred to as A Selection of Horses (Uma-zukushi), each surimono bears kyōka poems written in celebration of the new year by the poetry group's members accompanied by designs alluding to the word horse.

In this case, Hokusai alluded to the 'horse' via the imagery of a pair of dried sea horses (Kaiba), depicted lying in an open gold-lacquer folder. Behind, lies an unwrapped and opened, black-lacquered box containing a pair of dried jewel beetles (tamamushi).

These exotic goods were likely auspicious ritual wedding gifts, explaining their opulent cases. Pairs of dried sea horses, one male and one female, were used by women as amulets held for protection during childbirth. Similarly, jewel beetles were believed to be aphrodisiacs when ground-up and brides placed beetles in their face powder.

Such surimonos were meant to be changed as year-end ritual gifts called seibo and would have most likely circulated amongst the poetry club's members and acquaintances. As surimonos were privately commissioned, they were typically limited in production, with runs spanning a range of 50 to 200 impressions. This genre of woodblock printing also used costly materials and timely techniques such as bokashi (gradation) printing, blind printing (embossing), as well as the incorporation of metal pigments and mica powder.

It is possible that object information will be updated as new research findings are discovered. Please email if you can improve this record.

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