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Art, Sex, Vitality: Shunga - IGNITION

The history of shunga dates back as far as the Heian Period (794-1185), and the style and presentation of the erotic prints has changed with each era.

Unfortunately, no Heian-era shunga survive, but a few reproductions have been found of prints believed to date to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). These early prints took the form of emakimono a genre of narrative picture series popular in the Heain court, in which poetic prefaces were written in the negative space of images of couples having sex. By the late Muromachi Period (1336-1573), however, these prefaces had disappeared, and the narrative aspect of shunga gradually diminished.

But how were these images sold and displayed, and what might they have meant to their original owners?

The original shunga were probably more than just fine art; they had celebratory significance, and occasionally served as good luck charms. When a woman in classical Japan got married, it is widely believed that her parents would give her shunga along with furniture and other less explicit household goods as a guidebook on her wifely duties. In other words, shunga may have been Japans first sex manuals, and they were given at major turning points that required instruction in the etiquette of a new phase of life.

Beginning in the Edo Period, the spread of woodblock printing techniques brought mass-produced shunga within the reach of everyday townsfolk. The most popular shunga would be bound into books, and it is believed that lending houses played a major role in their spread throughout premodern culture.

This years shunga exhibit the first of its kind in Japan allows visitors a rare opportunity to enjoy the rich history of shungas world. In all, 133 pictures (40 hand-painted images and 93 woodblock prints) are on display, including major works by master artists like Suzuki Harunobu, Torii Kiyonaga, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Katsuhika Hokusai.

The Dream of the Fishermans Wife, aka Hokusais Octopus , HokusaiKatsushika (1760-1849)

This year, from September to December, Japans first-ever shunga exhibit was held at the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo. More than 80,000 visitors attended in the first two months alone, making the show one of the years most popular art exhibitions. As originally conceived, the show would have been a continuing series of an exhibit that premiered at Londons British Museum in October 2013 but for various reasons, organizers say the exhibit became an independent Japanese production.

The plan was that wed arrange a continuation of the London exhibit at the Tokyo Art Club in Shinbashi, says Mitsuru Uragami, planner and curator for the exhibit. We spent months wrapping up a comprehensive facility report, but when it was time to finalize the arrangements, a few board members came forward in opposition.

The Tokyo Art Club unwilling to support the continuation, Uragami had to look for other museum which will support the exhibition.

But the business of staging a shunga exhibit in Japan proved to be difficult. In addition to the risks of staging an experimental show made up entirely of shunga, it was unclear whether Japanese tradition or even modern Japanese critics regarded shunga as pornography or art. When a Japanese weekly magazine ran shunga prints by Hokusai over the final six pages of one of its issues, its lead editor was forced to take a three-month sabbatical on the grounds that the decision showed a lack of a consideration for readers.

Finally, after more than twenty rejections, the Eisei-Bunko, a museum chaired by ex-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa a true Japanese blueblood, whose ancestry dates back to the 12th century agreed to put on the show.

Hosokawa survaying the ehibit. Taken at Eisei-Bunko during the exhibition.

The Tokyo exhibit features original shunga works from the 13th through the 19th centuries. Among the pieces, visitors will find both hand-painted works and ukiyo-e, or prints made with a Japanese woodblock press first invented in the seventeenth century. Everything from the early work of the Kanouha, renowned as the first major school of Japanese painting, to later shunga by ukiyo-e masters like Hishikawa Moronobu, Katsushika Hokusai, and Kitagawa Utamaro, can be found on display.

TwelveErotic Scenes (Ketsudai Shunga E-maki), Kyoto Kano school (Kanouha, 17th Cent).The Kanouha, who dominated the world of Japanese painting from the middleages through the early modern period, were renowned for their hand-paintingtechniques. This piece, bound as ascroll that folds twelve pictures into the space of one, makes liberal use ofgold and silver leaf, and is believed to have been made for the upper classesof its day. Twelve Erotic Scenes (Makura-EAimono), Hishikawa Moronobu (1673-1681).An earlymasterpiece, completed shortly after the birth of ukiyo-e, Makura-E Aimonocontains printed ink outlines offset by hand-painted coloring. From the disheveled bed in the background, wecan infer that the woman is clinging longingly to her partner, who is on hisway out after a liaison. From the mansexpression, we might ask whether hes eager to get out the door.This piece isone print from a series of twelve, of which each print represented a differentmonth of the year. The original wouldhave been sold as a twelve-print set. Poem of the Pillow (Uta Makura),Kitagawa Utamaro (1788).Part of atwelve-print series, Uta Makura isconsidered Utamaros representative work.The composition is arranged to make it seem like the couple isfornicating right in front of our eyes, with their sex organs suggestivelyconcealed. The poem on the fan reads: his bill trapped in the clam / the duckponders what to do / as the autumn sun goes down. The clam and the duckbill, needless to say,represent male and female genitalia.This printexemplifies the advances in technique made since the earliest periods of ukiyo-e, and makes skillful use ofmulticolor printing techniques that mad been invented only twenty yearsearlier. Erotic Handscroll, Kyoto Kano school (Kanouha, 17thCent.), Amorous MurasakiFinds Pleasure in Fifty and More Chapters (Enshi goj yo-j), Utagawa Kunisada (ca. 1835).Often cited as the pinnacle of multicolor printing, this19th-century piece contains a rich variety of colors rarely equaledin shunga. It depicts a young woman and her paintingteacher, doing the deed as neighborhood children look on. Penis Prinirvana (Ymotsu Nehanzu), Artist Unknown (Mid-19th-Century).

Prior to Japans modernization, shunga had were far more than mere pornography. As symbols of life itself, they spoke to the mass consciousness of people all over Japan, regardless of where they fell in the Shogunates rigid class structure. Their symbolic vitality can still be felt today, in the gigantic penises and vaginas shunga brazenly point at their viewers. Although shungas themes were erotic, their technique and expressiveness reveals artistry of a high order, and there are many works where the richness of composition is as tangible as the libidinal intensity of the scenes.

It goes without saying that everyone has different taste in art, and its fine if some people like something and others dont, Uragami says. But with art, were also concerned with what you might call levels of refinement. Does something exhibit skill? Does it have feeling? Shunga have artistic value, and when you look at them, you dont just feel disgust. This exhibit has had a lot of female visitors too, and I think their presence here proves my point. These prints are obviously something very different from the pornography men look at when theyre by themselves. That may not mean theyre something Japan must take pride in, but theres no reason we need to be ashamed of them either. Even Tim Clark, an art historian at the British Museum, said that the masterpieces of shunga should be considered part of the worlds cultural heritage. When I hear something like that, I wonder if shunga arent exactly what the Cool Japan movement was all about.

Elite scholars seem to be taking shungas artistic value as given. But whether shunga is art or obscenity, you cant know if you dont see the real thing for yourself.

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