When the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) visited his friend and admirer, the art critic Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896) in January 1887, he was very curious to see these exotic art treasures in real life. His curiosity was sparked by Goncourt’s books Outamaro and Hokousaï which he had received shortly before. Goncourt was prepared because he always had part of his woodblock print collection and illustrated books in his trunk. This way he could show them to his friends at any time.
As Rodin inspected the collection his eye was immediately drawn to Goncourt’s shunga. About Rodin’s enthusiasm during this meeting Goncourt later wrote:
“Rodin, who is full of faunishness, asks to see my Japanese erotica, and he is full of admiration before the women’s drooping heads, the broken lines of their necks, the rigid extension of arms, the contractions of feet, all the voluptuous and frenetic reality of coitus, all the sculptural twining of bodies melted en interlocked in the spasm of pleasure.”
Soon after this appointment, Rodin started to collect the erotic art of shunga, including albums such as Hokusai‘s ‘Picture Book: Models of Loving Couples‘ (see Fig.2.) and ‘A Dyer’s Saffron‘ (see Fig.4.) attributed to Yanagawa Shigenobu. Rodin purchased the first prints from the biggest ukiyo-e dealer in France Tadamasa Hayashi (1853-1907) but the majority of his collection was formed by means of exchange or donations. His collection also included pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth century masters such as Harunobu, Toyokuni, Kunisada, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi.
Rodin had a similar print (different impression) of the above Hokusai design in his collection. Richard Lane said about this erotic design: “…Yet having said that much, we turn now to the true “climax” scene of the series: both man and woman passionately engrossed in the final stage of the act of love. There is nothing to obstruct the two lovers; eyes closed, they are totally absorbed in the entrancement of sexual fulfillment.”
This Hokusai design and all the other Japanese pieces from Rodin’s erotica collection have a strong connection with his sculptures, and he admitted that the vigor of Japanese erotica had a major effect on his own art practice.
Influence of Shunga
That Rodin was heavily influenced by shunga is illustrated by the following recollection of a conversation Rodin’s secretary, Marcelle Tirel, had with him:
“One day, Rodin showed me an entire series, including beautiful erotic prints. Somewhat ill at ease initially, little by little I felt overtaken by an unfamiliar sensation. “It seems as though your drawings express more,” I told him, but without having compared them to these prints, I probably would not have understood or seen that straight away. “That is why I let you see them together,” he said. “Now it seems as though I know how to draw…and I know why my drawing have that level of intensity: it is because I don’t intervene. Between nature and the paper, I have removed the talent. I don’t reason, I allow myself to be carried along…it is the culmination of my life.”
When we study the shunga prints from Rodin’s erotic collection and look at the depictions of the couples and compare them with his sculptures it is not difficult to see the similarities in the embrace of the couple, and the elegant, sensual forms (note the raised knee in both artworks – Fig.4. and 5), especially in the marble sculpture (Love and Psyche, see Fig.5).
The following video features rare footage of the famous sculptor:
Source: ‘Erotic Japonisme, the Inflluence of Japanese Sexual Imagery on Western Art‘ by Ricard Bru