Ukiyo-e, the popular color woodblock prints of Japan, are globally recognized and renowned, but their raunchier examples tend to see less light, rarely going on public display. Known as shunga (“spring pictures”), these highly erotic scenes comprise a genre of their own, and an exhibition devoted entirely to them has opened for the first time in their country of origin. Shunga, currently on view at Tokyo’s Eisei-Bunko Museum, features 133 works shown over two consecutive display periods, with many attributed to familiar names such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
The exhibition is preceded in scope by only one other show, which opened at the British Museum in 2013 and drew close to 90,000 visitors in three months. Nearly half of the works on display at Eisei Bunko come from the British Museum, with the rest borrowed from various Japanese museums and private collections. Open since mid-September, Shunga, too, is attracting so many people that organizers have been reporting heavy visitor congestion and 20-30-minute waiting lines. Despite the works’ popularity, their highly explicit nature is the chief reason behind their limited display in museums: as Japan Today notes, finding sponsors for large shunga exhibitions is difficult, and curators often express worry about public complaints. Ten establishments turned down requests to host Shunga before Eisei-Bunko offered its space, and the exhibit is restricted to museum-goers 18 years old and up (the British Museum advised parental guidance for those under 16).
These works have historically been taboo, with the Japanese government issuing an edict in 1722 that banned their production during much of the Edo period. Of course, they continued to emerge — often unsigned — and were widely circulated in Japan, although to Western eyes they were often regarded as pornographic.
As British Museum curator Tim Clark explained, it is likely that “everybody in Japanese society, from the ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson down in the street, used and enjoyed shunga. This is a situation that would have been inconceivable in Europe at the same time. In the West we’ve come up with this rigid division between what we define as art on the one hand and what we declare to be obscene or pornographic on the other.”
While the works are indeed graphic, they reflect the same artistic and technical finesse of less risqué ukiyo-e. Couples caught in the act of lovemaking are rendered with bold outlines and colors, and the garments and blankets they teasingly lift are often decorated with highly intricate, beautiful patterns. Attention is not lost, either, on detailing the places where such lust-filled scenes occurred. One work by Hishikawa Moronobu that shows a samurai (identifiable by his sword) embraced by his wide-legged lover also features a wall painting of a grinning tiger and four bamboo trees; another by Suzuki Harunobu includes in its background a black-spotted cat on a porch eying a butterfly hovering above a bonsai tree. Next to the two interlocked figures is an open and inked notebook, suggesting that the vignette is part of a greater narrative.
Many shunga were actually completed as stories conveyed in a series of scenes that progressively increased in intensity. Regarded as one of the genre’s masterpieces, Kitagawa Utamaro’s 1788 “Poem of the Pillow” contains 12 erotic illustrations in one album. One extremely detailed scene shows lovers in the upstairs room of a tea house, wrapped in flimsy patterned fabrics as they embrace one another. You can catch a glimpse of the man’s right eye, fixed on the features of the woman, who is turned resolutely away from us. It’s an affectionate moment that makes us highly aware of our voyeurism, but Utamaro has included one hint that the couple is aware of the viewer: the man holds out a fan with a poem written on its folds. Its beak caught firmly in the clamshell, the snipe cannot fly away on an autumn evening, it reads.
While shunga appeared mostly as ukiyo-e, some images were also painted on hand scrolls, such as Torii Kiyonaga’s 1785 “Handscroll for the Sleeve.” The long, narrow scroll enabled its owner to roll up the 11 images and tuck them into his sleeve to carry around, according to Clark. Like Utamaro’s illustration, Kiyonaga’s also exemplifies how shunga capture moments of intimacy as much as they depict physical acts. In one scene, a couple gazes with intensity into each other’s eyes, the privacy of the moment emphasized by the closely cropped image. The man places his fingers to his mouth, suggestive of the pleasure his lover will soon receive, which “gives a real idea of the mutuality of shunga — how it’s pleasure for women as well as pleasure for men,” as Clark says.
Inked script also fills the background of some of the pictures, representing dialogue that also reveals this mutuality. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of shunga is Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” (1814), which shows two octopuses pleasuring an ama diver. The text surrounding the trio relays their sexual pleasure — but it’s clear that the fantasy belongs to the woman rather than the cephalopods. The scene is certainly over-the-top, but its absurdity shows that shunga were not enjoyed for just their sexual nature but also for their humorous undertones.
The first half of Shunga continues at Eisei Bunko Museum (1 Chome-1-1 Mejirodai, Bunkyo, Tokyo, Japan) through November 1. The second half runs from November 3 through December 23.