‘Plum Blossom and Green Willow: Surimono Poetry Prints’
“In the main gallery of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, a big Jeff Koons exhibition is causing a stir,” writes Jenny Uglow. “But among the many delights of this museum are the small, free exhibitions, tucked away from the crowds, that display their more unusual collections. “Plum Blossom and Green Willow: Surimono Poetry Prints” is one of these, which, with its array of nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock poetry prints, transports us to another world.
A quiet revelation to visitors who are primarily attuned to the arts of the West, this is a strange and lovely show, accompanied by clear labels that usefully explain the context of the genre and teach us how to “read” these rare woodblock prints—to understand the relation of the work to the poems inscribed on the prints and the meaning of the figures shown, with their references to ancient traditions. Thus an elderly man with his umbrella stopping to watch a frog trying to leap up a tree, is, we learn, Ono no Tōfū, a prominent tenth-century statesman and poet, the founder of Japanese calligraphy and the anecdote concerns a low moment when he decided to give up calligraphy, but watching the frog’s perseverance and eventual success, he vowed to carry on. In another print, a tightrope walker teetering precariously on her rope belongs to a series called “The Six Immortal Poets,” where great writers of the past were illustrated by people of the present. The tightrope walker represents the ninth-century Buddhist poet Henjō, referring to a famous poem in which he recorded his “fall,” his breaking of the vow of chastity.”
For more information, visit ashmolean.org.