Last Sunday, my buddy and I went to see an exhibit on shunga, traditional Japanese erotic art, mostly dating to the Edo and Meiji eras. The term shunga translates as “pictures of spring”, a euphemism for sex, and many of the works were similarly titled — “Placing the peach in the golden vase.”
It’s difficult to describe the Japanese attitudes toward sex. On the one hand, there were many more pictures of this type produced in Japan than similar works in Europe, and they were created by some of the greatest artists of the time, including Hokusai, whose famous wave off the coast of Mount Fuji is a global icon for the country.
On the other hand, sex is still considered somewhat “shameful,” and these pictures would not have been openly displayed in the home (as erotic art was in ancient Rome, for example). Consider that this very exhibit only took place after a successful curation at the British Museum — it was their idea — and that no major museum in Japan would host it. They all thought it disgraceful to show this art in public.
To see it, we had to schlep to the Eisei-Bunko Museum — Bunkyo is a ward in the city — a little archive in northern Tokyo that houses the documents and artifacts of the Hosokawa clan, one of the more important aristocratic families from the feudal era. Their regents were a little more daring.
Indeed, when I told my Japanese girlfriend I was going, she looked at me cockeyed and asked, “Do you like that?” I had to explain that I wasn’t secretly masturbating to 18th century Japanese woodblock prints in the bathroom.
Japanese views on sex are complex, and after several years and multiple visits dating back to 2001 — I was in Kyoto on 9/11 — I still can’t explain it very well. You can’t think in terms of our Victorian dichotomy: open or repressed. Sex is not repressed here. It is not a taboo subject for young people. Masturbation and pornography are occassionally mentioned on television. But it’s not “open” either. Rather, it’s a completely unique cultural expression with its own norms and mores.
Most of the works in the exhibit, like Hokusai’s (below), were woodblock carvings that were then used to make high quality prints, and it’s the prints that are on display rather than the work that actually came from the artist’s hand. (See video.)
“Manpuku Wagojin (The Gods of Intercourse)” (c.1821) is a series of shunga by Katsushika Hokusai
Besides woodblock prints, other mediums included paintings on silk, such as the one below, which has quite vivid colors not captured well in this scan. (Photography was forbidden at the exhibit, so I had to raid the internet.) There were also several paper scrolls and even large folding screen, such as you might change your clothes behind.
Most of the works were simple heterosexual couplings like this, but on display were depictions of homosexuality. Although that included some men, such as in the cover image to this post, which depicts a couple having sex in a public bath, most of the homosexual art was lesbian in nature and was probably to titillate heterosexual men, as today.
Also on display were threesomes, 69, cunnilingus, dildos (including strap-ons), money shots (with semen), bestiality (usually to some fantastic or divine purpose — think dreams or animal spirits), even a glory hole!
This picture was not on display, but I couldn’t find the picture of the big black strap-on that was there.
And as always happens with sex, there was satire. The Hollywood porn industry certainly didn’t invent the sex-parody! This picture from the British Museum’s collection is a riff on the parinirvana of the Buddha — his death, many years after achieving Enlightenment — and so depicting it this way is analogous to nailing a penis to a cross, although this is more lighthearted than that would have been.
My buddy bought the book to the exhibit, which is printed in the traditional style, unbound on a long ream of accordion-folded paper. It’s massive and includes a great many more works than were on display in the small museum.
Despite all the shame and hoopla, there are signs that Japanese attitudes to shunga might be changing. Weeks after it opened, there are still long lines to see the exhibit. We had to wait thirty minutes just to get in. There were quite a few foreigners of course, but the crowd was overwhelmingly Japanese.
Here is a master printmaker demonstrating the fascinating, multi-step process of turning a series of woodcuts into a single gorgeous print.