A group of rare shunga, including one by Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849), the great master of Japanese erotic art, is being auctioned by Christie's - South Kensington in their Fine Printed Books sale March 21, 2012.
The three lots represent some of the finest shunga ("Spring Pictures") produced in the Ukiyo-e ("Pictures from the Floating World") wood block print style popular between the 17th and 20th centuries.
Shunka shuto, Shiki no nagame, by Utagawa Kunisada (Tokokuni III, 1786 - 1865), the most popular and certainly nineteenth century Japan's most financially successful artist, is "a truly remarkable production...
|KUNISADA, Utagawa (1785-1865). Shunka shuto, Shiki no nagame |
[In Praise of Love (in the Four Seasons)]. [1827-1829].
"...distinguished not so much for the designs, which follow a fairly predictable pattern of generally violent love scenes, portrayed with a coarseness all the more repellent on account of Kunisada's skilful realism, but for the amazing technical brilliance of the print-makers" (Hillier, The Art of the Japanese Book, p. 901).
"It is only by rare good chance that a Shunga as rare, or as closely guarded, as Ehon Futami-Gata, is likely to be seen at all" (Hillier, p. 507).
That rare good chance is now.
"The scene of the robber raping a woman whose husband he has tied up and whom he taunts with the point of his sword, is one of the most horrifying of any shunga of the period ... But the malevolent, black-clad figure of the robber is truly monumental and one of the most memorable images of the shunga even of this period" (Ibid., Hillier).
"Coming from a world where nudity was not necessarily perceived as erotic because of communal bath-houses, most shunga depict fully- or partially-clothed sex. This allows the print-makers to produce rich, colourful textures, and the artist to load the apparel with symbolism and help the reader identify various stock characters, such as courtesans, by their dress. Since shunga tend to depict a series of sexual tableaux, rather than a continuous narrative, each double-page scene is self-contained with the story printed as part of the background, and various symbolic props used as narrative devices. The genitalia are usually exaggerated and distorted, with the positions awkward or unrealistic, if not impossible, satisfying both a requirement for the sexually explicit and artistic composition.
"The demand for shunga meant that most ukiyo-e artists -- including the highly talented -- were drawn to the genre as the commissions that could be generated were far greater than for standard work. Interestingly, although there is little evidence that producing shunga damaged an artist’s standing, few signed their work" (Julian Wilson, Conjugal Eddies in the Floating World).
Ehon Futami-Gata (Erotic Book of Conjugal Eddies) has only recently been attributed to Hokusai, by Hayashi Yoshikazu (1981) and Hillier (1987). It is now considered to be foundational to the development of Hokusai's erotic art from his early works of the Shunro period, 1779-1794, through to his later masterpieces.
No, Conjugal Eddie was not a Japanese porn star,
Images courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.