Given as wedding gifts, protection charms, or manuals to spice up a persons sex life, shunga paintings were highly erotic depictions of Japans deepest fantasies.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue: these are some of the most traditional good luck charms brides wear for their wedding. But have you ever thought about giving the couple a piece of erotic art to help them spice things up in bed? Well, that was one of the main purposes of shunga, highly sensual wood prints that were popular between the seventeenth and nineteenth century in Japan. However, giving couples ideas for sex or wishing them a good sex life weren't the only purposes of these incredibly explicit pieces of erotic art.
Utagawa School, Geisha in Orange/Silver Kimono (1840)
The name of these pieces comes from the Japanese word for “spring,” which is used as a euphemism for sex. Although this kind of art gained popularity in the seventeenth century –when it became available to everyone–, it can be traced back to the eighth century, when gossip about sex scandals among the nobility was depicted in highly erotic and explicit images that narrated these affairs. However, it was in the sixteenth century that these pieces, reserved only for the upper class, started spreading through ukiyo-e, woodblock prints that were traditionally used to depict scenes from everyday life, stories, and nature.
Utamaro, "The Kiss," from the series History of Love - Long Bamboo of Love (1803)
Sugimura Jihei, Untitled, (1680s)
Because ukiyo-e were so popular, many artists decided to use them to depict a common and important part of life: sex. So, they let their creativity run wild and depicted everything from slightly suggestive images, such as courtesans tempting their lovers with a seductive gaze or pose, to surreal sexual scenarios, like the one that’s depicted in one of the most famous shungas of all time: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, made by Hokusai (the same artist who made the famous painting of a tsunami, The Great Wave off Kanagawa). This particular print, which shows a woman and an octopus in a strange sexual encounter, embodies the purpose of shunga, their source material, and the role of these paintings in Japanese society.
Hokusai, from his Eleven shunga (1812-1814)
First, it represents the lack of limits when it comes to represent the search for pleasure. One particular feature of these woodblock prints is that they represented amorous encounters between married couples and lovers, including homosexual encounters between men, as well as between women (although these were less common). Moreover, the represented subjects and their stories, most of the time written on the woodblock, could come from different social backgrounds and occupations, making them more relatable to the audience. Just like sexual preferences aren’t one-size-fits-all, there were shunga for every taste and purpose, the most common ones being the charms for married couples or for samurais, housewives, and merchants who wanted protection and good luck. So, it’s pretty safe to assume that almost every household and business had a shunga or two hidden among their reading material.
Hokusai, "Lesbian Couple" from his series Kinoe no komatsu (Languishing for Love) (1814)
Attributed to Keisai Eisen, Evening Encounter (no date)
However, their highly explicit and sometimes exaggerated representation of sex made authorities try to ban them several times between the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Nonetheless, this explicitness had a purpose, which was, to put it in simple terms, to teach what goes where and how. Also, one particular feature that caught the attention, especially of the foreigners who visited Japan in the nineteenth century, was the fact that most of the images show people having sex with their clothes on. This had to do with the fact that Japanese people didn't associate nudity with sex, mostly because they were used to seeing people from the opposite sex naked in the public baths.
Utamaro, Kappa to ama (The sea monsters and the diver) (1788)
While shunga survived for centuries, it declined with the introduction of photography in Japan, when it was replaced with erotic images. Nonetheless, it inspired new forms of eroticism in this country, especially hentai manga, which is even more explicit –and sometimes more violent– than its predecessor. While in the twentieth century this type of art was regarded as taboo, nowadays it has resurfaced in museum exhibitions that bring back the quality and openness from ancient Japanese society when it came to topic as natural as sex, which little by little, is being more and more talked about as freely as these paintings used to do. So, would you consider giving one of these as a wedding gift?
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