One of the most unabashedly erotic images to ever grace the pages of an art history book came from the woodblock of iconic Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Widely known for his G-rated, Edo-era prints like “The Great Wave at Kanagawa,” the celebrated ukiyo-e painter and printmaker famously depicted a titillating love scene between a few octupi and a satisfied-looking human being. The masterpiece swiftly and simultaneously brought full frontal nudity, bestiality, and female orgasm to the forefront of fine art.
The untitled illustration is but one of many sexualized paintings and tantalizing prints produced during the 17th century and beyond. Known as shunga, the genre was comprised of elaborate — and highly erotic — artworks that were banned from Japanese institutions for a significant portion of the 20th century.
Thankfully, an upcoming exhibit titled “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art“ is giving artists of the ukiyo-e genre their well-deserved spotlight. The collection of works by Japanese greats like Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Kunisada is celebrating the taboo-breaking side of art history with a survey of over 300 years of traditional Japanese erotica.
The allure of shunga, which translates to “spring pictures,” rests in the images’ ability to appeal to men and women of various sexual preferences. On the one hand, the expertly executed paintings and prints were liberating, featuring both genders freely and enthusiastically partaking in sexual acts. On the other hand, the artworks were light-hearted and comedic, focusing not only on romantic moments but also on the bizarre and awkward contortions that are more laughter-inducing than arousing. One piece shows a powerful women is seen experiencing a “happy ending” while another spotlights a duo of extravagantly clothed lovers attempting to feverishly circumnavigate their never-ending costumes.
Artworks by Hokusai and others weren’t simply gazed upon during this time, either. The pictures acted like sexual talismans, passed from partner to partner, friend to friend, and parent to child to use as both an educational manual and a good luck charm. In this way, shunga acted as the traditional precedent to contemporary anime and manga.
<<“Shun-ga,” spring pictures, have long been widespread in East Asia. They testify to a different attitude to sexuality and eroticism from our conditioning to such elements in Europe and are classified among the “ukiyo-e” pictures, pictures of the “floating world.” 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.
It is only recently that art and social history has endeavoured to gain an overall view of the theme of the Japanese mass medium ukiyo-e. Western visitors to Japan of the late nineteenth century were surprised at the seemingly relaxed attitude to nakedness and sexuality. And the color woodblock prints in fact still convey this impression as well. >>