Literally meaning spring pictures, Shunga (春画) is a type of Japanese erotic art produced mainly in the Edo period (1603-1867). Executed in woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) or in painted handscrolls, it was used by both men and women of all classes. Banned and marginalized from art history discussions, its historical and artistic importance has been recently recognized anew, opening the way for its presentation in exhibitions around the world.
Representing couples in explicit sexual acts, shunga can give some important insights on the behavior and culture of Edo period Japan. Although they express a wide-ranging sphere of sexual possibilities, many of these pictures have an idealized and fantastic side to it, depicting exaggerated genitalia, implausible positions and some sexual aberrations, like the famous picture of a woman having intercourse with an octopus, shown above. Because of that, many researchers doubt their initially thought instructional purpose.
Following a successful exhibition in the British Museum in 2013 and 2014, the erotic art of Edo period is finally being brought to the Japanese public at the Eisei Bunko Museum (Tokyo), after being turned down by several other museums, mainly due to its still obscene reputation in the country. Moreover, the fact that in Japan showing or depicting genitals is still censored (with pixelation of the intimate parts even in the pornographic industry) and forbidden by law, made it even more difficult to find a venue to exhibit this art.
Despite that and for being a private institution, the Eisei Bunko Museum will be showing about 120 pieces of Shunga until the December this year, some of them by famous woodblock print artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai, who also printed the famous “The Great Wave of Kanagawa”, a worldwide known symbol of Japanese art. If you are 18 years or older, this exhibition is definitely worth a visit.