'AMOROUS' 好色 - ART PHOTO BOOK UPDATE: THE EROTIC ART OF SHUNGA

The Japanese word Shunga (春画) spring picture, shun (春) spring often being described as a euphemism for sex has a more specific meaning when you research the kanji. Perhaps known but not widely discussed; the nature of its explicit adult content is often the subject of debate. Shunga has continued to draw curiosity from it's origin to its influences.

Usually Shunga was produced in formats of painted hand scrolls, printed books and sets of colour prints. It was considered a subject mastered and shared within the schools of ukiyo-e at the time. Painted works were commissioned by the wealthy and printed books and images were accessed for the ordinary people of Japan. During the early periods when Shunga was in circulation, Japan was isolated from the rest of the world and the production of work were at times deemed illegal.

The Kibyōshi (黄表紙) fashion books, gossip pieces and satirical novels was later considered to be the first type of purely adult illustrated book in Japanese literature. Produced during the middle of the Edo period, from 1775 to the early 19th century. It was identified by their yellow backed covers and typically printed in ten page volumes, with a large picture spanning each page and descriptive text with conversation filling in the void around the image. Not all Kibyōshi contained adult illustrations. The concept was centered around the technology at the time as woodblock printing was the way in which the books were produced in numbers by publishers for the wealthy merchants, the lowest-class members of Japanese society at that time.

Beauty of eroticism was not only depicted explicitly, but also subtlely revealed and this was shown in realistic, modest ways in everyday situations to total unrealistic fantasy. In some book publications the images began with neutral and natural interactions culminating into full explicit adult art with couples, same sex partners and multiple people in a group.

Utamaro Kitagawa

 Utamaro Kitagawa

plate 4. Higashoji | Utamaro Kitagawa
小町引き | Komachi biki | Tugging Komachi
Woodblock print, ink and colour on paper | 1802
Tokyo, Japan | Edo Period (1615-1868)

The Shunga portrayed sex as a guide for newly wed couples or poems and stories for entertainment; but there were views from the pleasure districts, Shimabara (嶋原) in Kyōto (京都市), Shinmachi (新町) in Ōsaka (大阪) and Yoshiwara (吉原) in Edo (江戸). Katsushika Hokusai and his daughter Oi often visited the floating world of licensed brothels, tea houses and kabuki theatres for inspiration.

Although Hokusai has achieved worldwide recognition for his artistic work, his daughter Katsushika Oi (葛飾応為) who also created woodblock prints has remained relatively unknown. It is rumored that some of Hokusai's images, particularly his Shunga and the work produced in the last 10 years of his life were Oi's. Women, particularly wives and daughters, would assist the painters, but few gained individual recognition. Ukiyo-e artists generally did not participate in the production of the prints, they sold the drawings to publishers who oversaw the printing. The painter and publisher appeared on the final prints, but the individual people who made the prints, the block carvers and printers were usually not acknowledged.

The meaning of 春 shun in 春画 shunga:
SHUN - spring; beginning of the year; sex
haru - spring

売春 baishun - prostitute, courtesan
売春婦 baishunfu - prostitute
春情 shunjō - sexual passion,lust
春本 shunpon - obscene book
春宵一刻價千金 shunshō ikkoku atai senkin - one moment of a spring evening is worth a thousand pieces of gold
春分 shunbun - the vernal equinox
春季皇霊祭 shunki kōreisai - the Springtime worship of Imperial Ancestors; the Feast [Festival] of the Vernal Equinox  

Katsushika Hokusai

 Katsushika Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai
福寿草 | Fukujusō | Adonis Plant
Woodblock pint; ink and colour on paper | 1810-15
Tokyo, Japan | Edo Period (1615-1868)

Hokusai's original work 'Adonis Flower' or 'Adonis Plant' (福寿草) Fukujusō was first produced in 1810-1815. The Adonis is a yellow flower referred to as the pheasant's eye often associated with prosperity and longevity. This flower is used in decorations for the morning of New Year's Day and is related with winter. In this image a man suckles the breast of his pregnant wife. The original version featured dialogue accompanying the two characters.

Katsushika Hokusai

 Katsushika Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai
蛸と海女 | Namichidori | Plovers above Waves
Hand Coloured; ink and colour on paper | 1828-29
Tokyo, Japan | Edo Period (1615-1868)

The Artwork above taken from the series 'Plovers Above Waves'(波千鳥) Namichidori was published between 1822-29. This piece shows the text deleted from the original work, with hand-colouring as opposed to only using nishiki-e (錦絵); a method of using several blocks for individual colour. Whether Hokusai or his assistant applied the hand coloured details is unknown.

All images are in the public domain.

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