, 27. March 2016
The almost forgotten Sex Images of Japanese Edo Period


The name shunga translated means spring pictures. This initially does not let assume that paintings, prints and images are meant to represent explicitly sexual acts. With high anatomical detail, shunga illustrates the way women and men indulge in the happy bustle.

x-working Shunga from the Edo period, about 1820-30
Shunga from the Edo period, about 1820-30

Shunga comes from Japan. Here it had its heyday in the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867. The colour woodcuts then were produced in editions of up to 15,000 pieces. For the former Japanese middle class, they were, so to say, the first sex magazines. Besides, many shunga are even humorous. There are pictures in which half a dozen men compare their penises, or images dropping a hint to the powerful of their time, which are more or less illustrated in cramped way during lovemaking and thus made look ridiculous. Of course, this did not please the rulers of the land and so it came to the first censorship of prints in 1722. The production and distribution still flourished in the underground because painted shunga still were allowed.

Shunga images were of high artistic significance, probably mainly because all known artists of Japan virtually painted shunga at the time. One of the best-known shunga prints shows a naked woman who relishes spoiled by an octopus. The image is entitled "Der Traum der Fischerfrau" created by the painter Katsushika Hokusai. He also has created Japan´s most famous colour woodcuts "The Great Wave off Kanagawa". Many artists did not consider their shunga as shady, and signed them with their names.

The uninhibited dealing with sexuality in Japan at this time probably evolved by the indigenous religion Shintoism. Shintoism revered nature and fertility and was of great importance in Japan. Since the country was founded on the sexual union of two gods, Japanese originally had a completely different view on sex than the Christian marked by shame and sin. After the Edo period ended in 1868, the country opened to Western influences. Therefore, it was that little by little public nudity, mixed bathing in hot springs and, indeed, shunga itself became disreputable. Shame and prudery lay down on this unique aspect of Japanese art history.

For long times shunga illustrations were buried in oblivion. In the 70s in the West, there were first exhibitions on this subject. Three years ago, the British Museum organized a major shunga exhibition entitled "Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art". The London wrights then wanted to bring the exhibition back to their country of origin and met with a refusal from over 20 venues. Many museums are still embarrassed to exhibit their own shunga artworks.

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