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

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.

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

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

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

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

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 Privatsammlung, Vienna; Photo: MAK / Georg Mayer

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