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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Title: A Flowering Arrowroot Plant
Date: commissioned for a New Year, ca. early 1820s
Medium: Color woodblock print
Dimensions: 10 1/16 x 8 3/8 inches (25.5 x 21.2 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Joanna Haab Schoff, Class of 1955
Object Number: 2011.017.023
Label Text: Hagakure ni As for that fragrance
Niou wa kuzu no Hidden in the leaves
Hana mo min It seems to be the arrowroot flower
Ura fuki kaese Blown back by
Tsuki no shita kaze The wind below the moon
—Shunkai

This highly unusual, painterly surimono by Kuwagata Keisai (better known in ukiyo-e as Kitao Masayoshi) seems initially to be more closely related to haikai surimono. The style is quite similar to the kind of literati, nanga-influenced haikai surimono being made at this time in the Kamigata region of Kyoto-Osaka. The printing style emphasizes light, translucent pigments, without key-block lines or the metallic pigments almost obligatory on kyo ̄ka works in the 1820s. This piece, however, does contain extensive embossing, with the shape of the moon smoothed out of crepe paper, and represented without printed lines. And the verse inscribed is a kyo ̄ka, albeit one with the subtlety of the image itself. The leaves of the kuzu plant, appearing as a light green, are white when turned over, as by the wind here, leading to the expression ura-mi, literally “look to the rear” but homophonous with “bitterness” or “anger.”

These elements hint at the story of the fox spirit Kuzunoha (literally “Arrowroot leaves”), who, concealing her true nature, married the courtier Abe no Yasuna, bearing him a son with supernatural powers. Unable to remain in human form forever, though, Kuzunoha gradually transformed back into a fox one moonlit night, ultimately inscribing a farewell poem on a screen with a brush clenched in her teeth, as her hands had turned to paws. The poem suggested that her husband look for her in the kuzu leaves of the Shinoda forest, suggesting her bitterness at being unable to continue her human life.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.