About the book
Shunga, such as the famous Japanese erotic pillow books, also known euphemistically as ‘spring images’, were vibrant, curious and explicit documents of sexual life, designed to inform, thrill and entertain. This book presents a comprehensive modern study on Japanese erotic art, illustrating a large selection of the best works from public as well as private collections from around the world.
Far from being a separate genre, Shunga constitutes at least half of the output of all ukiyo-e art, and often the largest part of any given artist’s production. This continuity, once surprising, is now only recently beginning to be taken for granted, between the greatest masterpieces of ukiyo-e art, often acclaimed for their subtlety, elegance, refinement and novel composition, and the blatantly pornographic images produced by the same artists.
The social and religious attitudes of pre-modern Europe both prevented the appreciation of Shunga prints. The cultural context of pre-modern Japan was markedly different to that of Europe, and allowed a vibrant, uninhibited and widely circulated genre of erotic imagery to develop. Edmond de Goncourt first started to collect Japanese art works including Shunga prints, and published the first monograph on a Japanese artist in 1891. De Goncourt’s interest in Utamaro gave sexualised prints particular importance, making them integral to the history of Japanese art and its reception in the Western world. Artists such as Edgar Degas, Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Gauguin among many others were known for their love of Shunga prints and were influenced by the unusual framing and arbitrary colours of Japanese printing methods. Shunga notably came to the West during the Art Nouveau period when collecting Japanese prints became popular, and traces of Shunga styles and elements have visibly influenced this artistic period. The most famous and recognizable shunga work is Hokusai’s depiction of a young woman being ravished by an octopus in his album Pining for Love.
Compared to Western perceptions of the nude and its associations with sex and the Christian concept of original sin, mere nakedness held little erotic interest to the Japanese viewer. This explains why Japanese erotica is so extreme in its sexual depictions and why many of the prints, paintings and scrolls illustrated in this book depict clothed or half clothed figures. Some Shunga illustrated famous tales, such as the Tale of Genji, an eleventh century novel which concentrated on the romantic life of the son (Genji) of a Japanese emperor. This is the case of many works by important ukiyo-e artists, included in this publication, such as Moronobu, Kunisada, Harunobu and Eizan among others.
Much if not most Shunga was published in book form, as opposed to the single sheets that dominate the ‘normal’ ukiyo-e market, which allowed pictures to be easily carried about and, importantly, stored unobtrusively. This is the case of Utamaro’s famous album, Poem of the Pillow, which is reproduced in this publication in its entirety, as are many albums notably by Hokusai, Harunobu, Kuniyoshi and many others.
The book also illustrates some of the rarer Shunga works such as the beautiful handscrolls made by such artists as Kyonobu, Sukenobu and Shuncho. These demonstrate particularly the expressive vibrancy of colour and interest in surface pattern that are aesthetically important in the Japanese print.
Gian Carlo Calza’s insightful text is accompanied by 350 colour images, offering a great variety of examples from traditional Japanese erotica. The book comprises of a general introduction which sets the artists and their work in their social, historical and artistic context. The book is then organised by artist with a short text on each artist, introducing the illustrated works. The author references the latest in art historical scholarship, but this book is also aimed at readers who may not have specialist knowledge or extensive familiarity with Japanese culture.