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The Art of Love

Unknown artist, Love in the Street, woodblock colour print, Ofer Shagan Collection

The Art of Love

Ofer Shagan's Shunga Collection


June 6th  - October 10th, 2009

Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer


The Japanese Shinto belief derives from fertility - of mankind and of the earth. Hence it does not relate to sex as a shameful, sinful, or taboo act, and Japanese mythology is replete with sexual freedom. Even today one can find in Japan Shinto shrines in which there are representations of fertility deities in the form of sexual organs. This attitude has been conducive to the artistic and literary expression of erotica since very early times.


Japanese art depicting sexual and erotic relationships is known as "shunga" (spring pictures), probably because spring is the season of germination and flowering, evidence of the fertility of the earth. The pleasure girls of Japan are called "baishunfu" - "women who sell the spring", perhaps because they are in the springtime of their lives. Other appellations for this type of art include: shunpon - spring books; makura-e - pillow books (kept in a drawer inside a wooden pillow); e-hon - picture book; higa - secret pictures; and abuna-e - dangerous pictures, which only hint at sexual acts but do not actually depict them. Such pictures are also called warai-ga - funny pictures, because many of them are parodies considered as amusing, but also because the word "warai" in old Japanese has a double meaning. It also means onanism.


Before a young couple married, the bride-to-be received an illustrated scroll depicting various positions of sexual congress. Other such scrolls were used to instruct the husband, and there were also instructions about sexual hygiene. Indeed, many shunga are humorous parodies about well-known personages. But since it was forbidden to depict famous people in erotic scenes only hints of their identity can be found.


Various beliefs were attributed to the shunga. Samurai carried them inside their armour as amulets to protect them in battle. Men placed them in their wallets as charms to make them rich because the word "koban" signifying the dimensions of the picture (12x9 cm.) is the same as the name of a coin in use at that time. Women placed them in cupboards in order to protect their homes against fire. A widespread belief was that shunga pictures could cure people with an especially powerful sexual drive.


Shunga series of four represented the seasons. According to the vegetation in the background one can learn which season is represented. However, as a rule, a series comprised twelve pictures of forty-eight different positions (shiju-hatte) like the number of Buddha's vows. The settings of the pictures depict various festivals - kites flown on New Year's Day, banners shaped like carp for the Boys' Festival, the twelve symbols of the Chinese wheel of fortune, and others.  


At the beginning of the Edo era (Edo: 1603-1868) the technique of woodblock printing developed in Japan, allowing the production of many copies of books or pictures. The first books and prints that were issued were about religion and shunga. Hishikawa Moronobu (1618(?)-1694) was one of the first artists to create shunga prints. Shunga art was created mainly in Edo and Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka). Differences in style derived essentially from the addition or omission of background detail, and from the colours used. In Kamigata, books were mostly printed in black and white. Single prints were colourful, but the colours were muted, unlike the Edo prints. In ca. 1764, the technique of the coloured print developed, and the black-and-white prints were sold to less influential people. The texts accompanying the prints were not usually written by the artist, and most of the hand-painted scrolls did not include texts, so that the viewer had to guess who was represented in them. Clothing and hats offered hints of the subject's social status, and the hairstyles hinted at their age. Bald men are Buddhist monks, men with swords are samurai. In paintings, the figures are engaged in sexual intercourse, without any background. From the early 18th century, women's hair, particularly of geishas and streetwalkers, is carefully arranged with pins and combs. In earlier scrolls the hair is long and loose, as it was worn by noblewomen.


The earliest shunga were usually intended for personal use, for studying alone or by couples. Since they were too expensive for most of the simple people, there was no limitation placed on their production. But after the woodblocks were printed in multiple copies, and were sold at reasonable prices, a law was passed forbidding representations of famous personages from the ruling classes or the aristocracy, past and present, in this genre. This censorship was not intended to prevent production of shunga, but only to limit the artists' licence in regard to this sensitive aspect.


The first shunga books were identical in size to books on other subjects, and were apparently unaffected by censorship. However, between the years 1722 and 1761, almost all shunga books were in a smaller format, making them easier to conceal. The earlier publications usually included explanations about sexual intercourse and erotic tales. Later publications were generally compilations of love stories and parodies of Japanese and Chinese folk tales. Others related the early history of Japan, especially of the Heian era (794-1185), known for its sexual permissiveness. Books about the travels and sexual adventures of travellers were also produced, the most famous of which is the "Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" (the route between Kyoto and Edo). At each station there were hotels for nights of pleasure, and teahouses with prostitutes. Each station is represented by a different sexual position. From 1761-68, and until the end of the Edo period, when censorship was relaxed, the format of the books was larger, and some even reached oban size (appr. 37x25 cm.) when open.


Most of the ukiyo-e artists (ukiyo-e: pictures from the floating world) also created shunga. Some even focused exclusively on this genre, but since most of the prints are unsigned, the artists' names are not known. The names of both the publishers and the artists were disguised or omitted on the prints in order to prevent trouble with the authorities. In some cases the artist signed a name that hinted at his real one. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), for instance, often signed his works "Utamakura", while Utagawa Kunimaro (1794-1825) signed himself "Maru-maru". Others artists inverted letters of a word to give it sexual connotations. When censorship relaxed, the artists began to sign their real names integrated in the background of the print, and sometimes an artist would create a copy of an erotic scene, omitting the act itself, and then he would also sign it with his real name. 


The shunga depict both heterosexual and homosexual acts, some of them with deities, demons, animals and other creatures. Most of the women are courtesans from the pleasure quarters, identifiable by their clothing and makeup, the many pins in their hair, and their sash which is fastened in the front, to make it easier to remove and readjust. In many pictures the courtesan holds a slip of tissue paper in her hand or between her teeth during intercourse. Such shunga prints were purchased as mementoes by men who had enjoyed what the pleasure quarters had to offer, or those who could not permit themselves to actually visit these women. Most of the shunga were apparently created from the artists' imagination. They even depicted respectable women, married women with blackened teeth, and pregnant women, or women with their children. Single women can be identified by the long sleeves of their kimono.


In the early shunga, the men are usually samurai. These were expensive, and sold only to the aristocracy. Although, in the Edo period, it was forbidden to take swords into the pleasure quarters, the artists included the swords in their renderings, so that the samurai would be identifiable. In many pictures, servants or other men are shown, peeping jealously at what is happening. Buddhist monks who are supposed to renounce sex are often shown in doctors' uniforms because the latter, like the monks, used to shave their heads at that time. The woodblock prints also depict famous Kabuki actors, and since the prints were not so costly, men from all walks of life began to be featured in them. Almost no depictions of men comparing sexual organs are shown, apart from the ancient scroll Yobutsu kurabe (The Phallic Competition), but there are scenes of men comparing their prowess.


In nearly all the shunga the couples are clothed or partly clothed, probably because winters in Japan are very cold indeed. Since men and women bathed together in Japan in the olden days, nudity was an accepted aspect of daily life, so perhaps some clients preferred partially clothed figures to naked ones. In the early shunga the sexual organs are proportional to the body, but as of the end of the 18th century they are vastly enlarged. Bodies are usually out of proportion or in impossible attitudes, perhaps because of the need to entwine several figures together. Perhaps the artist deliberately made the limbs disproportionate or in impossible attitudes in order to create artistic harmony, or to emphasize the sexual organs and focus on the sexual act, or perhaps the intention was to create a grotesquerie. Such prints are usually parodies, humorously suggestive of well-known aristocratic personalities, Kabuki actors and others. Comic shunga books also provided gossip about such people.


Shunga are full of symbols and hints. From the symbols that are usually present in the background, one can learn about the sexual mores of the period as well as about the couple in the foreground. For example, a pair of geese on a folding scroll symbolizes that the couple is really in love and will always be faithful to each other. In old Japan, geese were considered as lovebirds that mate for life. Another symbol is that of a man walking through water. Water symbolized women, so the picture is suggestive of sexual intercourse. An island surrounded by water has the same symbolism of heterosexual coupling. A woman offering water to a man who is drinking it implies that he has had a long relationship with her. Background images of figures from the classic literature or folktales are also imply the relationship between a couple. There are prints in which figures seem to detach themselves from the background and approach a couple in the foreground in order to watch them more closely, like the Zen monk Daruma ("Daruma" has a double meaning - it also means a prostitute), or Hotei. Fireworks, set off at the New Year and for festivals, symbolize the man's emotion and sexual release. The woman's pleasure is usually evident in her expression. Mount Fuji in the background symbolizes a man with a large, strong penis.


The most sought-after women in the Edo period were plump and fair-skinned (daikon-onna: big radish woman). A radish is also pale and plump. A depiction of a man caressing a giant radish of which the roots are spread like a woman's legs symbolizes intercourse with a woman. An oyster (kai) symbolizes the female sexual organ. In the humorous shunga there are often illustrations of men holding an oyster shell, and the Japanese word is still slang for the female organs. A mushroom (matsutake) represents the male organ because of its shape. Humorous pictures often depict a woman watching a man picking mushrooms. Another symbol for the large phallus is the shakuhachi flute, and quite often there are shunga of women playing with a shakuhachi. The Japanese umbrella made of bamboo and paper also appears in shunga. Since paper is easily torn, a man holding a closed umbrella implies that his sexual prowess is weak.


Drinking is another frequent subject. For instance, a man offers sake (rice wine) to a woman in order to arouse her more easily. According to the number of empty bottles lying around, one can estimate how long they have been together. The paper tissues spread about also inform us of the stage of coitus and how long it has lasted.


In the early shunga, the man and woman are usually detached from each other except for their sexual organs. Later, artists depicted them embracing. The man is rarely shown touching the woman's breasts because men who do so were considered childish - breasts, after all, are intended for lactation. Kissing is also shown infrequently, perhaps because in old Japan one only kissed someone very dear to one, in specific circumstances.


The mirror is an important appendage, frequently present in shunga. It allowed the artist to depict the sexual act from different angles, and enabled voyeurs to watch the coitus. Japanese houses are small, and the paper shoji doors allow for very little privacy. Some shunga depict men watching through a hole in the paper. Voyeurs are of both sexes and all ages, alone or in pairs. They usually look aroused, envious, or astounded.  


Shunga books or scrolls often appear in the pictures so that the couple can study the various positions (many of which are quite impossible). Equipment for pleasuring oneself is also represented. Women use dildos (harikata), and the men use an artificial female organ (azumagata).


Betrayal is frequently represented. Couples in the act of betrayal often have their heads covered with a kerchief (hokkamuri) so as not to be recognized. Sometimes a husband is seen hiding in order to catch his wife deceiving him with another man. There are also pictures of a woman whose husband is sleeping beside her while she makes love to another man. Violence and rape are also depicted, the attacker always in a negative aspect - ugly, his face distorted, usually with a hairy body tattooed in the style of bandits.


Even the Shinto and Buddhist deities appear in shunga, such as an orgy among the seven gods of good luck (six males and one female). Demons like the tengu are seen having sexual relations with people. The phallic nose of the Konohana tengu is used to titillate a woman. There are scenes of demons (oni) raping men and women. The god of thunder (Kaminari) also appears frequently in such scenes. According to Japanese tradition, a woman should not shower during a thunderstorm because the god might rape her.  


Erotic scenes that include animals began to appear in the mid-18th century - a woman coupling with a giant octopus, or foxes transformed into humans who tempt men or women. They either wear ordinary clothing or look like people with tails. Pictures of intimate relations with animals are usually parodies, and dogs or cats are often shown copulating with people.


As in other cultures, homosexuality (nanshoku) was accepted behaviour in Japan among the aristocracy, monks in Buddhist monasteries, and samurai (bido: the beautiful way; wakashudo: the way of youth). The relationship was usually between an older man (active) and a young lad, his student (passive), and was both emotional and sexual. In the Edo era the bourgeoisie developed a new style of homosexual congress in imitation of the samurai mode. However, these relationships were usually merely opportunistic, based largely on the male performers of the Kabuki who acted as women (onnagata). In the cities there were "children's homes" (kodomo-ya) in which young boys were used as prostitutes. Although the boys in the shunga are dressed and made up as women, their hair is arranged in the style characteristic of boys of their age. Nevertheless, bi-sexuality rather than homosexuality was the accepted norm in the Edo period, and the men who did have relationships with boys were nearly always married. There are plenty of shunga pictures depicting sexual activities involving three people - a man, a boy, and a woman. Kabuki actors who performed women's roles had sex with both men and women, and were subjects of shunga parodies that contained hints of scandals about the aristocratic women who had sexual relationships with them. There are also depictions of lesbianism, usually of women using dildos, or wearing a man's mask while making love.


Traditional Japan was an erotic paradise, but after the American occupation western moral standards predominated. In 1958 prostitution was forbidden (and is no illegal, although the government turns a blind eye), and the pleasure quarters were dismantled. Modern pleasure quarters are filled with clubs of various types that embody the erotic fantasies of contemporary Japan.

The exhibition is presented courtesy of Ofer Shagan, Tokyo.
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