Shunga, the Japanese term for erotic art, was highly popular during the Edo Period, with artists still creating to fill demand even after the government banned the explicit illustrations in 1722. In the many works that emerged, however, encounters between men were uncommon depictions. One early 18th-century handscroll has survived the years as a rare and well-preserved example of gay shunga. Painted by Miyagawa Chosun, the work has been apparently virtually unseen since the 1970s, when images were published in a book (traces of it then vanished). The works are now traveling from a private Japanese collection for Bonhams’ Fine Japanese Works of Art auction occurring on March 16 in New York City.
“I think that [gay shunga] was not typically portrayed,” Jeff Olson, director of Japanese art at Bonhams, told Hyperallergic. “Probably partially because there was a larger audience for male/female shunga. Not to say that there were not (and are not still extant) a fair number of examples of the subject.
“I could be wrong, but I think there tend to be more printed examples as opposed to painted. I imagine that many of those that were produced got destroyed, or at least hidden after the arrival of Western travelers in the late 19th through the early 20th century. Victorian-era Europe and America tended to be a bit more prurient about sex.”
When unrolled, this surviving scroll reveals 10 intimate scenes, each isolated against a warm golden background rather than situated in recognizable domestic or outdoor settings, as many shunga are. They form a collection of scenes rather than a chronological narrative, with a large cast of characters cuddling under vividly designed blankets, spooning on tatami mats, or tenderly mounting one another (face-to-face and from behind). The ink paintings spread across 11 feet of silk, and the lavish material, according to Olson, indicates that the handscroll’s patron was likely quite wealthy. (For those interested on bidding, it’ll probably cost you around $35,000 or $45,0000 in today’s market.) While some handscrolls were intended to be slipped up one’s sleeve for easy transport and convenient perusing, Chosun’s was likely meant for stationary display due to its value.
At first glance, Chosun’s scroll may seem to depict the typical male-female tussle, as such male-on-male scenes usually pair an older gentleman with a younger, more effeminate lover, as Olson said. The sense of delicateness in each scene emerges from details such as female kimonos, worn by the younger gents; the length and flow of hair; painted lips; and even soft hand gestures. Countering these touches of femininity, however, are the presence of props that are clearly masculine, the most obvious being samurai swords.
The handscroll was meant for private viewing, but it’s unlikely Japanese society at that time considered such subject matter any more scandalous than it would other scrolls portraying heterosexual action, as Olson said. According to Professor Timon Screech, as quoted in the auction catalogue, during the Edo period “‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were not fixed distinct human types, rather they were understood as activities.” Chosun’s handscroll even includes a few scenes of threesomes; in one example, a young man peers over an ongoing romp, seemingly wanting in on the adventure.
While the handscroll clearly offers plenty of NSFW action, gay shunga actually tends to be less sexually explicit than male-female illustrations, with their artists drawing the viewers’ attention more toward these intimate moods and the subjects’ emotions rather than toward the actual sex acts.
“In fact, there are relatively few acts of sex portrayed in the scroll,” Olson said. “Rather, a recurring theme of romantic love and tenderness between the lovers is depicted …. However, typically shunga will emphasize the genitalia, enlarge it (no pun intended), precisely because that was the whole point of the erotica.
“There was a voyeuristic element to it as well being somewhat irreverent and humorous. But the viewer wanted to see the details of the sex act.”