While studying the Bubb Kuyper catalogue it struck me that the genitals of both male and female are depicted far too large and are highly exaggerated. This made me wonder…is this wishful thinking of the japanese men in general or is it to draw attention to the print and the action within. I found an excellent article on Shunga…. The art of the erotic japanese prints by the British Museum and they have a clear point of view:
The genitals of both sexes are so exaggerated in shunga that it leaves literally nothing to the imagination. A wall text quotes Tachibana no Narisue, an artist in 1254: “The Old Masters… depict the size of ‘the thing’ far too large… If it were depicted the actual size there would be nothing of interest. For that reason don’t we say that art is fantasy?”.
Despite a similar preoccupation with the humorous side of sex, shunga has a far greater artistic pedigree than seaside postcards. Whereas Thomas Rowlandson is unusual in the British artistic tradition for producing erotic prints, shunga prints were an expected part of Japanese artists’ portfolios.
Once viewers get past the shock of seeing such explicit scenes, other details begin to emerge – particularly the beautifully rendered robes worn (or, more accurately, half-worn) by the couples. Full nudity appears to be rare, and the gorgeous colours and designs of traditional Japanese costume frame the prints with sensuous folds.
Early versions were hand painted on scrolls, some of which are highly exquisite and expensive. Twelve Erotic Scenes in Edo (circa 1790), by Hosoda Eishi, is particularly beautiful, with gold leaf and gilding used liberally as decoration on both sides of the scroll.
By 1765, the perfection of full colour woodblock printing methods in Edo made shunga available for the masses, and it was during this period that the conventions of the genre became more firmly established. It was also during this period that the samurai elite began to censor shunga – but for its political, not erotic content.
Shunga presented a threat to Japan’s strict social hierarchies by depicting sexual congress between different social groups; some books may even have revealed secret court gossip. However, the authorities did not strictly enforce the ban, meaning that shunga flourished under the radar.
It might be easy to dismiss Shunga as a sensationalist exhibition, but the work displayed reveals a fascinating insight into a private world. It’s one both familiar and strange to us.
Sexual life is revealed as loving, passionate, comforting, rough, illicit – even violent at times. Despite existing in a fantasy world, shunga artists manage to reveal a great deal about our common humanity.
www.ftn-books.com has a book on the modern Shunga experience available.