Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

All You Must Know About Japanese Erotic Art, Shunga (18+)

Bodies And Erotic Art

All You Must Know About Japanese Erotic Art, Shunga (18+)

“Ukiyo-e” pictures, pictures of the “floating world.” are famous among everyone interested in art history. Everyone knows Hokusai’s “The Great Wave of Kanagawa”. “Ukiyo-e” became also very popular among artists from the second half of the 19th century. With their colors, clear line and composition they influenced artists such as Edouard Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec Vincent van Gogh and Impressionists.

Vincent Van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887, van Gogh Museum

Vincent Van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887, van Gogh Museum

But there is one type of “ukiyo-e” that isn’t presented so often as “36 Views of Mount Fuji“. It’s the type that Western visitors to Japan of the late nineteenth century were very surprised when they’ve discovered it. The type that was characterized by seemingly relaxed attitude to nakedness and sexuality.


It’s “Shun-ga”, which in Japanese means “spring pictures”. Until March 5th at MAK Vienna you can visit an exhibition “Shunga – Erotic Art from Japan“. On the exhibition you can see erotic color woodblock prints which are loans from the Leopold Private Collection, supplemented by prints from the MAK collection and a further Viennese private collection.

And they will blow your mind.


“Shun-ga” have been very popular in East Asia. Almost all great ukiyo-e artists produced erotic pictures. Although forbidden by the government, they were sold unsigned under the counter and estimated to form up to fifty percent of ukiyo-e production.


Japanese approach to sexuality was very different from the European one, where sexuality has been cloaked in heroic and religious connotations. European art was mostly limited to female naked body (although male nudes rarely happened too, and we were trying to spot them in this article). In Japanese culture playful approach to sex is in central focus. Religion, philosophy, and medicine are often employed in them as metaphor. What always seems important is the consensus of the participants and the lack of violence, which is only rarely a subject of the genre. Also a frequent touch of humour, supported by entertaining dialogue is added to them. Shunga offered sexuality a shameless visual platform, where sexual pleasure, female sexuality, and homosexuality were not only acknowledged but encouraged.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) , summer evening, 1799. From the album Negai no itoguchi [ Awakening of Desire ]. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

A typical shunga. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), summer evening, 1799. From the album Negai no itoguchi [ Awakening of Desire ]. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

The primary use of shunga would have involved viewing and sharing the paintings or books with close friends or sexual partners. The images were also used to provide sexual education for young couples or to encourage a warrior going into battle. It seems that they were also highly valued by women as it has been found among the material goods presented to a Japanese bride.
Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865, attributed) , exchanged love couple, around 1830/40. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865, attributed) , exchanged love couple, around 1830/40. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer


As the scenes may not be easy to understand in some cases, note the titles 🙂 
The majority of shunga depict the sexual relations of the ordinary people. Occasionally there also appear Dutch or Portuguese foreigners. Courtesans also form the subject of many shunga.

Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-1770) , Kyōdai no shūgetsu [ autumn moon on the mirror stand ], 1766. From the series Furyu Zashiki Hakkei [ Eight Views of Interiors ]. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-1770) , Kyōdai no shūgetsu [Autumn Moon on the Mirror Stand ], 1766. From the series Furyu Zashiki Hakkei [ Eight Views of Interiors ]. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

While most shunga were heterosexual, many depicted male-on-male trysts. Woman-on-woman images were less common but there are extant works depicting this. Masturbation was also depicted.
Anonymous , Roll with erotic scenes, 2nd half 17th century .. color and ink on paper © MAK / Georg Mayer

Anonymous , Roll with erotic scenes, 2nd half 17th century .. color and ink on paper © MAK / Georg Mayer


In almost all shunga the characters are fully clothed. Nudity was not inherently erotic in Japan – people were used to seeing the opposite sex naked in communal baths. The clothing also helped the reader identify courtesans and foreigners, the prints often contained symbolic meaning, and it drew attention to the parts of the body that were revealed, i.e., the genitalia.

Isoda Koryūsai (1735-1790) , love couple with young spectators, around 1775. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

Isoda Koryūsai (1735-1790), Love Couple with Young Spectators, around 1775. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

Regarding the genitalia – shunga couples are often shown in nonrealistic positions with exaggerated genitalia. There is an interesting explanation for this include increased visibility of the sexually explicit content. The genitalia is interpreted as a ‘second face,’ expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by woman to conceal, and is therefore the same size as the head and placed unnaturally close to it by the awkward position.

Utagawa Kunimaro (c. 1830-1870) , at the tea drinking, around 1860/70. Illustration from a three-volume book. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatzammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

Utagawa Kunimaro (c. 1830-1870), At The Tea Drinking, around 1860/70. Illustration from a three-volume book. Color woodcut © Leopold Privatsammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

Find out more:

     

Art Historian, founder and CEO of DailyArtMagazine.com and DailyArt mobile app. But to be honest, her greatest accomplishment is being the owner of Pimpek the Cat.

Comments

More in Bodies And Erotic Art

  • Thomas Eakins, Swimming, 1885, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX, US Thomas Eakins, Swimming, 1885, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX, US

    20th century

    Best Male Nudes in Art History (NSFW!)

    By

    Nudity in art first became significant in ancient Greece. The athletic competitions at religious festivals celebrated the male body as an embodiment of all that was best in humanity. While the female nude was a symbol of procreation and fertility, male nudity was associated with triumph,...

  • Bodies And Erotic Art

    Danse Macabre: Dancing with Skeletons

    By

    Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) – a weird dance between people and skeletons. You might think that it is a scene from a horror movie. But surprisingly, it is a medieval allegorical concept for the all-conquering and equalizing power of death. Ready for a story full of...

  • Bodies And Erotic Art

    Lesbian Love and Sex in Art History

    By

    Lesbian love and sex is an often hidden part of humanity. Furthermore, it seems like it was always so. However, there are few examples from the earliest times of history which show it is a part of human nature. Lesbian Love in the Classical Period Throughout...

  • Tom of Finland, Untitled, © Tom of Finland Foundation Tom of Finland, Untitled, © Tom of Finland Foundation

    Artist

    Tom of Finland: the Artist Who Created the Village People’s Look

    By

    Meet Tom of Finland, the artist that inspired the looks of Freddie Mercury and the Village People. He was friends with Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andy Warhol visited his first exhibition in a boot shop in 1978. His art revolves around strong gay masculinity, with men often...

  • 21st century

    Pink Unicorns, Cowboys and Candy Clouds: Welcome to Will Cotton’s Own Wild West

    By

    As unicorns stand as a strong emblem for the LGBTQ community, Will Cotton’s latest works are the perfect way to get your arty fix in Pride Month. Visit The Taming of the Cowboy at Galerie Templon, Brussels. New York-based artist Will Cotton is widely known for...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy