History of Erotic Art

Japanese Shunga

The Japanese have a long history of recording daily life through the arts. Every aspect of Japanese life can be found in their beautiful paintings. The most mundane subjects are given beauty through the stylistic execution of the subject matter. Wonderful prints on clothes, screens, waving branches and exquisite furniture are all depicted. Paintings are, however, by their very nature, time consuming to complete and difficult to replicate many times in order to reach the masses. Printing, however, was a great medium for art work to reach the people and many examples survive today.

The Adonis Plant by Katsushika Hokusai, woodblock Ukiyo-e was a popular form of Japanese woodblock printing and was particularly popular in the Edo period (1600-1868). We now know Edo as Tokyo. Ukiyo-e, or 'pictures of the floating world', typically depicted landscapes, historical themes, theatre, sumo and scenes from the pleasure districts of the city. They were pictures of the everyday Japanese in everyday situations. The pleasure district was known as Yoshiwara, an area of Edo where the Japanese arts were practised, including the theatre, sumo and where geisha could entertain their clients. This area of Edo was a hedonistic mix of red-painted lanterns combined with the scent of Jasmine and blossoming cherry trees. To the Japanese and visiting Westerners the Yoshiwara promised sensual enjoyment and excitement.

Paintings and woodblock prints depicting the geisha and their courtesans entertaining were known as Shunga. These appeared as early as the 7th century in the form of highly skilled paintings, and by the 17th century woodblock printing brought Shunga to the masses. The geisha was not a prostitute but an actress, singer, dancer and performer highly skilled in entertainment. She was not expected to sleep with her clients at all; her company was all about the erotic promise, fantasy and complete attention she gave to her clients. The literal translation of geisha is gei, meaning arts and sha, meaning person. The geisha and courtesans who were most often depicted in Shunga were highly erotized women partly due to their profession, but also because they were unattainable to the general public. Only the wealthiest, most cultured gentlemen would have access to the best courtesans and in turn it was these gentlemen who were the most lucrative patrons of the best Shunga.

Shunga, or ‘spring art’, were highly sexually charged prints, showing all forms of sexual practices and could be very graphic in their depictions of different positions and fetishes practised by the courtesans and some geisha. In fact, the word ‘spring’ was a simile for sex. All Japanese artists would practise Shunga; it was a respectable art form and did not damage their reputations in any way. Artists would frequently visit the brothels of Edo to inspire them and the prints clearly show that no aspect of this world escaped them. Some of the most well known Shunga artists were Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Isoda Koryusai, whose work in the 1760s was typified by the use of vivid colour, and Katsushika Hokusai, the last great master of Ukiyo-e. It is believed that Shunga were initially intended as books for instruction on sexual practice. Usually produced in sets of 12, one for each month, they would depict different scenes and positions to enlighten the unenlightened! Newly-weds would often be given Shunga as wedding gifts and the bride to be would be shown Shunga as a guide to what was expected of her after her marriage. It was an accepted part of life that women enjoyed Shunga as much as men; indeed they saw the courtesans as glamour models who, like our modern-day models, influence the world of fashion. The Japanese believed that these guides provided sexual happiness through the variety of acts shown and could also awaken and heighten sexual desire. The two would work together and it was considered unhealthy to have one without the other.

Shunga art is characterized by certain artistic elements which makes it quite different from the Chinese art form with which it is sometimes confused. The couples in the prints would have outsized genitals, so it was very clear what was happening, the toes of the courtesans and clients would often be curled in sexual ecstasy, showing how pleasurable the experience is. The Japanese artists would use a lot of colour and symbolism in the prints, for example plum blossom would indicate virginity and tissues, the imminent moment of ejaculation. The couples would rarely be shown fully naked; the art seems to stress the need for modesty and this partial state of undress heightens the erotic quality of the prints. Clothing patterns and styles were used as a way of identifying the difference between courtesans and foreigners. Also the use of clothing drew the attention of the viewer to the exposed parts such as the genitals and the back of the courtesan's neck which was deemed a highly erotic area. After 1722 censorship laws were passed in Edo which prohibited the explicit Shunga prints. To satisfy the need for erotica, artists developed a new style called abuna-e or dangerous pictures. No intercourse was depicted or indeed genitals or even pubic hair, but new techniques were employed to titillate the market. Girls were depicted bathing, in their boudoir, swimming or standing in windy weather that disarranged their clothes. It is this form of restraint on the ukiyo-e artists that actually makes the abuna-e more erotic in nature than the explicit Shunga. By the end of the 18th century, however, Shunga was back in vogue until the advent of erotic photography in the late 19th century.