Utagawa Toyohiro
New Year in a Distinguished House

Signed: Toyohiro ga; Printer’s seal: Surikō Ko...(?); surimono, shikishi-ban, 20.8 x 18.5/20,5 x 18,3 cm; nishiki-e with karazuri, fukibokashi and kinginzuri

A young beauty is looking at a fan on which the symbol for “long life” has been written and signed: “Rokujuen 70 years old”. The screen and the narrow wooden plaque hanging on the pillar are covered with satirical poems written in the poet’s hand. Hidden references to long life can also be found, such as plums, bamboo, a crane or the Adonis plant. Corresponding with the signature on the fan, Otto Riese received this print as a present on his own 70th birthday.

Gift of Ernst Boehringer (1964)
Riese Collection #102

One often wonders how a Japanese of the early nineteenth century looked at the woodblock print, especially a surimono. Perhaps it was something like this: the young woman holding the poem slip is looking to the left. Our eyes follow her gaze and we notice that a fan is opened on the table inscribed with the character for long life, and signed by the poet and calligrapher Rokujuen, at the age of seventy years. As Westerners, we leave the print for the biographical dictionary and learn that Rokujuen was the son of the print designer Ishikawa Toyonobu, who was born in 1753. Allowing for the Japanese style of counting ages we calculate that the print was published in 1822. Surimono were published privately, however, and the Japanese admirer of this print would already have noticed that the girl’s kimono bore on her sleeve and shoulder the hourglass emblem of the Itsutsu-ren, the Circle of Five, the poetry club of which he was a member. Rokujuen was the leader of this group, and the viewer would be well aware that on New Year’s Day he was celebrating his seventieth anniversary. His eye might move back to the long inscription at the middle of the print, on a wooden plaque hanging form a pillar. The inscription is a couplet of Chinese, also composed and signed by Rokujuen. “Ten thousand years in the public eye,” it says, “cranes and turtles, pine and bamboo, float in the lifted glass”. In the upper left-hand corner of the print, is a piece of framed calligraphy reading Chikubō, “Bamboo Studio”, on the right a painted screen decorated with peonies and poems by Yamakawa Shirazake and Nikakuen Takendo, two poets from Rikujuen’s circle. The second poet’s name means Bamboo Man of the Two Crane Garden. Bamboo, which has been mentioned now for the third time is, along with the pine and plum, a symbol of longevity. The plum has not been mentioned, but blossoms outside the window. Cranes are also symbols of longevity, and were mentioned on Rokujuen’s plaque. The potted flower in the lower left-hand corner of the print is a kukujisō, “flower of good fortune and longevity”, an Adonis in English, also associated with New Year. Suddenly our poet-friend notices that the dark border of the screen has a pattern. It is a stylised form of the character fuci, “good fortune”. And the poem by Shirazake mentions the fragrance of fukubotan, the “peony of good fortune”. But the name Rokujuen, its central character meaning long life, and the repetition of Good Fortune, Fuku, evoke Fukurokuju, the God of Longevity. Of course! But then the viewer is presented with his final puzzle. Fuku is repeated frequently enough throughout the print, and so is longevity, or ju, but where is roku, the middle character to be found. Roku means happiness in the name of the Lucky God Fukurokuju, but in Rokujuen’s name it means six. Are there six of anything, perhaps, in the picture? And suddenly the puzzle is solved: poem slip, screen, wooden plaque, framed inscription, fan, book, there are six things on the print which carry words, the instruments of the poet’s life. With a sense of delight and no small satisfaction, our viewer leans back on his heels, the picture before him on the tatami flooring. He admires now the printing, the delicacy of the engraving. He wonders what he might have overlooked. Rokuju means six trees. Could be there six trees or six plants? Peonies, adonis, plum; bamboo and pine in the inscription; plum and pine on the woman’s dress; herb on the ceremonial decoration over the suspended plaque. Perhaps. He must congratulate Rokujuen. Send him a poem. And thank the artist Toyohiro. How ingenious they were this time. In his last thoughts, as we leave him, he is composing a poem for a surimono of his own. Later in the summer perhaps, or next year.

Another impression of this print is reproduced in Henri Vever (Sotheby’s, 26 March 1975, no. 273).

It is singularly appropriate that this surimono which was designed and printed to celebrate Rokujuen’s reaching his seventieth year, was a gift to Prof. Riese on the occasion of his own 70th birthday from Ernst Boehringer, a life-long friend.

Reproduced in: Ingelheim catalogue, no. 89.
Riese, Asiatische Studien, 1972, p. 108.