Erotic Art of Japan
The Art History Archive - Erotica

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"In art, immorality cannot exist. Art is always sacred" - August Rodin

Erotic Art of Japan:

Japanese erotic art is generally regarded as reaching a peak during the Edo period, 1600-1868; Edo refers to the small fishing town which was to succeed the old city of Kyoto as capital of Japan and which was to become the Tokyo of today. The Edo period saw a quite unparalleled development of erotic art and literature, one consequence of which was that the Japanese government started to take an interest in censorship

The Tokugawa (Edo) Period:

A movement that paralleled and occasionally intersected with the aforementioned developments in painting was that of the production of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” which depicted the buoyant, fleeting pleasures of thecommon people. This specialized area of visual representation was born in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as part of a widespread interest in representing aspects of burgeoning urban life. Depictions of the brothel quarters and Kabuki theatre dominated the subject matter of ukiyo-e until the early 19th century, when landscape and bird-and-flower subjects became popular. These subjects were represented in both painting and woodblock print form.

Woodblock printing had been a comparatively inexpensive method of reproducing image and text monopolized by the Buddhist establishment for purposes of proselytization sincethe 8th century. For more than 800 years no other single societal trend or movement had demonstrated a need for this relatively simple technology. Thus, in the first half of the17th century, painters were the principal interpreters of the demimonde. The print format was used primarily for production of erotica and inexpensive illustrated novellas, reflecting the generally low regard in which print art was held. This perhaps resulted from the idea that the artist, when creating a painting, was essentially the producer and master of his own work. However, when engaged in woodblock print production, the artist was more accurately classified as the designer, who had been commissioned and was often directly supervised by the publisher, usually the impresario of a studio or other commercial enterprise.

The simplest prints were made from ink monochrome drawings, on which the artist sometimes noted suggestions for colour. The design was transferred by a skilled carver to acherry or boxwood block and carved in relief. A printer made impressions on paper from the inked block, and the individual prints could then be hand-coloured if desired. Printing in multiple colours required more blocks and a precise printing method so that registration would match exactly from block to block. Additional flourishes such as theuse of mica, precious metals, and embossing further complicated the task. Thus, while the themes and images of the floating world varied little whether in painting or print, the production method for prints involved many more anonymous and critical talents than those of the artist-designer whose name was usually printed on the single sheet, and the mass-produced prints were considered relatively disposable despite the high level of artistry that was frequently achieved. Nevertheless, with the exponentialincrease in literacy in the early Edo period and with the vast new patronage for images of the floating world—a clientele and subject matter not previously serviced by any of the traditional ateliers—mass production was necessary, and new schools and new techniques responded to the market.

In the last quarter of the 17th century, bold ink monochrome prints with limited hand-colouring began to appear. “The Insistent Lover” by Sugimura Jihei (fl. c. 1681–1703) providesan excellent example of the lush and complex mood achievable with the medium. Within a seemingly uncomplicated composition Jihei represents a tipsy brothel guest lunging for a courtesan while an attendant averts her eyes. This scene, likely played out hundreds of times each evening in the urban licensed quarters, skillfully suggests the multileveled social games, including feigned shock and artful humouring of the insistent guest, that prevailed in the floating world. This print, too, with an almost naive representational quality, is an example of the generally straightforward, exuberant mood of the times in regard to the necessary indulgences.

From the late 17th until the mid-18th century, except for some stylistic changes and the addition of a few printed, rather than hand-applied, colours, print production remained basically unchanged. The technical capacity to produce full-colour, or polychrome, prints (nishiki-e, “brocade pictures”) was known but so labour-intensive as to be uneconomical until the 1760s, when Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–70), whose patrons were within the shogun's circle, was commissioned to produce a so-called calendar print. Calendar manufacture was a government monopoly, but privately produced works were common. Seeking to avert any censorship, the private calendars were disguised within innocent-looking pictures. Harunobu's young woman rescuing a garment from the line as a shower bursts is an example of the technique. The ideograms for the year 1765 are part of the hanging kimono's pattern. More importantly, the work is a full-colour print. Even though it was commissioned for limited distribution, it excited general audiences to the possibilities of expanding the repertoire and appearance of woodblock prints. Harunobu's productions, through the end of the decade, elegantly suggested the new possibilities. His work so raised the level of consumer expectation that publishers began to enter full-colour production on the assumption that consumption levels would outweigh production costs. Not all prints were produced with the subtlety and care of Harunobu's, but the turn in taste toward full-colour prints, of whatever quality, was irreversible.

The last quarter of the 18th century was the heyday of the classic ukiyo-e themes: the fashionable beauty and the actor. Katsukawa Shunsho (1726–92) and his pupils dominated the actor print genre. His innovative images clearly portrayed actors not as interchangeable bodies with masks but as distinctive personalities whose postures and colourfully made-up faces were easily recognizable to the viewer. Masters at portraying feminine beauty included Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). Both idealized the female form, observing it in virtually all its poses, casual and formal. Utamaro's bust portraits, while hardly meeting a Western definition of portraiture, were remarkable in the emotional moods they conveyed. A mysterious artist active under the name of Toshusai Sharakuproduced stunning actor images from 1794 to 1795, but littleelse is known of him.

At the close of the 18th century, a palpable tightening of government censorship control and perhaps a shift in public interest from the intense introspection provided by artists ofthe demimonde forced publishers to search for other subject matter. Landscape became a theme of increasing interest. In Edo the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), who as a young man trained with Katsukawa Shunsho, broke with the atelier system and experimented successfully with new subjects and styles. In the 1820s and '30s, when he was already a man of some age, Hokusai created the hugely popular print series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji. Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858) followed with another landscape-travelogue series, Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, which offered scenes of the towns and way stations on the central highway connecting Edo and Kyoto. Both these and other artists capitalized on public interest in scenes of distant places. These landscape prints in some way assuaged the restrictive travel codes enforced by the shogunate and allowed viewers imaginative journeys.

Hokusai was also an important painter. His energetic rendering of the Thunder God is a fine example of the quirky and amusing quality of his figural painting. A characteristic swiftly modulating brush defines the figure, and light cast from an unseen source, perhaps lightning, allows for a play of light and shadow over the figure to model a sense of body volume. All the more remarkable is the fact that Hokusai wasin his 88th year when he painted this vigorous work.

Hiroshige painted as well, but his legacy is a vast number of prints celebrating scenes of a Japan soon to vanish. His “View from Komagata Temple near Azuma Bridge” is part of a series of 100 views of Edo. It demonstrates Hiroshige's finely honed abilities to effect atmosphere. The appearance of the cuckoo screeching in the sky alludes to classical poetry associated with late spring and early summer, as wellas to unrequited love, while the tiny figures and the red flag of the cosmetics vendor suggest the transitory nature of life and beauty.

The depiction of famous views allowed for their idealization and also for important experiments with composition. Fragmentary foreground elements were used effectively to frame a distant view, a point of view adopted by some European painters after their study of 19th-century Japaneseprints. Ironically, in their return to landscape and flora and fauna subjects, Japanese print arts revived the metaphoric vehicles of personal expression so familiar to the classic Japanese and Chinese painting traditions.

Although the time-tested themes of erotica, brothel, and theatre continued to be represented in 19th-century prints, an emerging taste for gothic and grotesque subjects found ample audiences as well. Historical themes were also popular, especially those that could be interpreted as critiques of contemporary politics. Ukiyo-e prints seemed to have been transformed from a celebration of pleasure to a means of widely distributing observations on social and political events. As the century closed, the print form, while active, was subsumed by the development of the newspaperillustration. This new form served many of the same purposes as prints and thus dramatically reduced the print audience, but it did not satisfy the needs of connoisseurs.


The style is known as shunga, with some of its greatest practitioners (Harunobu, Utamaro, etc.) producing large numbers of works. Painted hand scrolls were also very popular. The Chinese tradition of the erotic is extensive, with remarkable examples of the art dating back as far as the Yuan period (1280-1367). Unfortunately not much survives as a result of Mao Zedong's revisionist destruction of pre-communist art during his Great Leap Forward.

The popularity of the Japanese Shunga is still increasing. They are one of the most sought after erotic art images of today and now they have finally reached the 'high Art' status as well. The Kunsthal in Rotterdam has the biggest exhibit ever created of Shunga art. The exhibit is called 'Desire of Spring, Erotic Fantasies in Edo Japan'.

The chronological overview shows us famous artworks from Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, Suzuki Harunobu and others. The artworks are from different courses, both museums and private collections. Along with the Shunga there are love letters, erotic novels and kabuki theatre to bring back the taste of the erotic side of Japan from that period.

Japanese Shunga

The Japanese Shunga became populair around 1900 in the western world. At first they had a hidden existence in Europe and we do know from different courses that they were quite popular in 'artistic' Paris at that time. Some European artists, Like Vincent van Gogh are know for their love of the Shunga Prints. Van Gogh even used some ideas in his personal work. But a lot of others did collect them as well and some of the visual concepts were transform in to European art style's like Art Nouveau.

Erotic Shunga images

The erotic Shunga images, well we should call them pornographic, are showing us the world of the Geisha, actors and courtesans in the Edo period. The images are both explicit and humorous. But because of the graphical artistic quality it's just never embarrassing to watch them. But who knows, maybe one day they will say the same about our porn images.

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