The history of Japanese erotic art truly is an interesting one. Born in an open-minded culture, it is rich just as it is kinky and bizarre, from curious traditions to the famous Shunga paintings. While today, Japan’s raw and slightly aggressive approach towards sexuality comes through the pornographic manga and anime imagery, the truth is that such aesthetics and attitude are rooted in a celebration much longer lasting than the country’s modern period. In fact, it were the Shunga that had major success as artworks for pleasure and are still one of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese erotic art, with all their themes, meanings, uses and even legacy. Why did these “spring images”, which had nothing to do with the season itself, take Japan by storm and what is it that makes them so alluring so many years after their prime?
For almost three full centuries of the Edo period, between 1600 and 1868 when the economy grew and the people enjoyed arts and culture to the fullest, the Japanese saw the bloom of Shunga. A form of the traditional erotic art, these pictures originated during the Heian period (794 to 1192 AD), but the copying of images was expensive and complex at the time, due to the lack of technology. However, with the arrival of woodblock printing and the creation of ukiyo-e, its subgenre, Shunga overcame the last obstacle towards being mass-produced, and so high-quality, affordable images reached a large number of people, be it upper classes or “ordinary” citizens. The woodblock printing technique allowed artists to carve pictures into wooden blocks, which would then be coated with ink and pressed onto paper, leaving a print. And what these prints depicted was a celebration of sex and pleasure, as natural and unaffected as it could be, an ode to love-making it all its many forms and practices.
Highly explicit, Shunga not only evoked, but also encouraged all facets of human sexuality and desire: heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, and depicted a dazzling spectrum of practices and expressions such as voyeurism in the most raw and exaggerated way. In these artworks, the subjects are seen luring in ecstasy and sexual excitement, in a scenery that leaves nothing or very little to imagination. Everybody bought them and enjoyed them, creating high demand and driving away almost any kind of narrative that would accompany the provocative images at the beginning. While some believed that Shunga brought good luck, others used them as sexual guidebooks - in fact, many young people would receive them as gifts and for older couples it served to “spark the old flame”, in a certain way. Of course, the Shunga were mostly there to provide source for self-pleasure, the quickest, cheapest and easiest-obtained one of all. Furthermore, in Edo, the capital of Japan at the time, the Tokugawa law separated many husbands from their wives and lovers, the Japanese erotic imagery was there to comfort them and make them “pass the time”.
Why sexual encounters and the wonders of love-making, of course! But before we jump to possibly negative conclusions, encouraged by the horrid state of today’s erotic art, let’s examine the imagery provided by the Shunga. Yes, they were explicit, daring and quite to-the-point, but they hadn’t lost a certain touch with reality, as they kept that tender, loving spirit of the couples involved. After all, it was all about pleasure and the equal giving/receiving of that pleasure, which is why we see equal treatment of everyone involved. What’s also surprising, particularly to the nudity-driven Westerners, is that most of the time they are fully clothed or only semi-naked - turns out that full nudity is far less thought-provoking than a body partially clothed with fine silks and sumptuous clothes.
Furthermore, although Shunga mainly represented heterosexual couples, this wasn’t always the case. The homoerotic couples and themes were a frequent sight at well, just as sensual and engaging as the other ones. In fact, sometimes it is quite hard to tell which genders are involved in sexual activities, as their physical appearance would often be identical. The only way to tell was through a vivid depiction of their genitals, almost always exaggerated and enlarged contrary to the proportions of the body. Nevertheless, after a while this stops being important and the viewers start focusing on the joyous expression on their faces more, probably even more exciting than the in-your-face genitalia. Another significant aspect of the Shunga was voyeurism, which seems as though it was meant to ease the guilt of the viewers themselves. The scenes of copulation usually took place indoors, giving curious minds a true sense of observation, which brings a certain kind of excitement proven by the popularity of Shunga in the first place.
That Shunga were so widely appreciated and wanted shows the fact that respected artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, and especially Katsushika Hokusai, also created them at one point of their career. Hokusai, who is famous for his 1830 iconic painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa, made another historical work as Shunga: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, in 1814. One of the most salacious images in the history of art sees a big pink octopus pleasuring a woman, and to those not familiar with Shunga, the image was more shocking than it was erotic. On the other hand, Utamaro’s 1778 Poem of the Pillow demonstrated the significance of emotions in the act of love making, at the same time showing the innovative artistic skills of the artist in portraying sensuality.
Probably the most famous contemporary Japanese artist inspired by the Shunga is Nobuyoshi Araki, whose photographs capture scenes of bondage, often in relation with sadomasochism. His art is often perceived as closer to pornography than to erotica, while others praise his unique approach to intimate portraiture. But the art of Shunga didn’t just influence Araki – its impact can be seen in Japanese video games and the subgenre of anime and manga, otherwise known as hentai.
Let us not forget the great Toshio Maeda, widely considered to be the grandfather of erotic manga. In arts, many contemporary Japanese creatives deal with the topics of erotica and sexuality, and many of them reference the old artworks as well, like the erotic drawings by Yoshifumi Hayashi or Suehiro Maruo. Others, however, are introducing artworks which escape the notions of Shunga yet are considered part of the Japanese Erotic culture: Simon Yotsuya’s dolls, the West-influenced illustrations by Hajime Sorayama and the contemporary photography by up-and-coming artists like Yurie Nagashima and Riichi Yamaguchi.
Widely distributed, Shunga were enjoyed by everyone, and in all forms: prints, paintings, handstrolls or illustrated books until the end of the 19th century, when the production moved underground and towards the Western cultures. They were made by both famous and anonymous artists, who have all contributed to the making of its rich history in terms of quantity and quality. Shunga were, without a doubt, very sexually explicit, but without a doubt they were also a form of art. While the West continues to struggle with the blurred lines between art, erotica and pornography, the Shunga embody them in a kind of harmony that quickly became an important part of the Japanese art history, one where there is no objectifying, violence, intolerance, exploitation, prejudice or humiliation – only pure celebration of sex in all its forms.
Editors’ Tip: Understanding Shunga: A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art
Exquisitely and abundantly illustrated, this is the most comprehensively informative book ever to be written on the subject - truly a "masterclass". This sumptous guide explains the cultural forces behind Shunga images and why the Japanese find them so erotic as well as revealing the influence of Shunga on great Western art movements such as Impressionism. It is A lively and comprehensive introduction to the beautifully erotic art of pre-modern Japan...Fully illustrated throughout, this sumptuous book explores the development and influences of Shunga.
Featured image: Torii Kiyonaga - Sode No Make (Handscroll for the Sleeve) (detail), c. 1785, Courtesy British Museum; examples of Shunga, various authors. All images used for illustrative purposes only.