The Magnificent Shunga Collection of the Controversial Aubrey Beardsley
The exclusive and direct impact of shunga on the artists in Britain during the second half of the 19th Century was limited to only a few painters and illustrators. One of them was the “genius of the grotesque”, and the most important representative of the Decadent art in England, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898). Beardsley was famous for his drawings in black ink, inspired by the ukiyo-e style, in which he accentuated the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic.
Although he accumulated an impressive shunga collection, he denied that it had a great influence on his work (Picasso had a similar attitude a couple of years later). He started collecting when the youthful painter and Japanese art collector William Rothenstein (1872-1945) presented him a shunga book by Utamaro that he acquired in Paris in late 1893.
Rothenstein: “I had picked up a Japanese book in Paris, with pictures so outrageous that its possession was an embarrassment. It pleased Beardsley, however, so I gave it him. The next time I went to see him, he had taken out the most indecent prints from the book and hung them around his bedroom.”
After the first acquaintance with this controversial art form, Beardley’s “bedroom” was soon expanded with more Japanese erotic art to what would eventually become an magnificent shunga collection. Iin 1904, the German art critic Julius Meier-Graefe (1867-1935) described it as follows:
“At Beardley’s house one used to see the finest and most explicit erotic Japanese prints in London. They hung in plain frames against delicately colored backgrounds, the wildest phantasies of Utamaro, and were by by no means decent, though when seen from a distance, proper and harmless enough. There are but few collectors of these things, as they cannot be exhibited, so they were comparatively cheap ten years ago, and among them the best preserved prints are to be found. To talk with Beardsley among these pictures was to enter into a new world of thought, and the pictures seemed as natural to the room as the grandparents’ portraits over the sofa of a middle-class citizen.”
While shunga were not exhibited in public, Meier-Graefe’s description suggests they were reasonably easy to obtain. It also affirms that the artists at the time were fully aware of the expressive and influential potential of this tantalizing art.
Franz von Bayros
A remarkable artist at his time, Beardsley’s style was distinguished by a type of immoral art, influenced by Rococo, Greek, and Japanese art. He created a graphic technique that was erotic, sensual, and depraved and that influenced a lot of British and European painters and illustrators such as Franz von Bayros (1866-1924), Will H. Bradley (1868-1962), Léon Bakst (1866-1924), Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), and Ismael Smith (1886-1972).
Despite Beardley’s attempts to reject any signs of Japanese influence in his art, his graphic works from 1893 to 1896 clearly consist of elements drawn from Japanese erotic prints. This is especially visible in his richly layered approach, the use of color, the curved shapes, and the unbridled depiction of erotic subjects. Good examples of this are the illustrations he made for Oscar Wilde’s English edition of Salome (Fig.2.)* and in particular those for Lysistrata (Fig.1.).
The impact of shunga on these illustrations can be seen in the various effects such as the application of black ink, the oversized genitalia** (Fig.3. and 5), the grotesque figures, and sexual devices. Another striking feature that was frequently portrayed in shunga and strongly influenced Beardley was the theme of voyeurism (Fig.4.)
As noted earlier, Beardsley had a large shunga collection and hung prints in his studio, including pieces by Utamaro that he described simply as “A Beautiful Book of Love.” It is very possible that he also got inspiration from other private and public collections, such as Frederick Evans (1853-1943) and the British Museum.
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More interesting background info on the influence of Japanese erotic art on the Western artists can be found in the highly recommended book Erotic Japonisme, the Influence of Japanese Sexual Imagery on Western Art by Ricard Bru…!!!
*The Stomach Dance demonstrates Beardsley’s taste for the grotesque and the erotic, as seen in the erotic imagery by artists of the Katsukawa and Utagawa schools. The roses “dancing” to the music made by the small, grotesque creature replace Salome’s breasts, while a veil is introduced as a large phallus between her legs.
** The exaggerated, yet detailed, rendition of masculine and feminine genitals (Fig.3.), enlarged and of equal or even larger size than the faces of the figures is one artistic convention recognized in Japanese erotic imagery since the Heian period, and particularly from mid-Edo period onward.