One of my personal favorite themes within shunga is that of the depiction of Westerners (maybe because I am a Dutchman myself). The former residents of Japan (in particular those of Nagasaki) including artists could only observe these strange red-haired “creatures” from a distance. Since the Dutch and Portuguese were separated from the Japanese population, and accommodated on the artificial island Dejima.
The oban-sized piece featured above is considered to be one of the great highlights in shunga. It’s from the series called ‘Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow)’, which was published in 1788 and produced by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).
It’s a unique image with a rather uncomplimentary portrait of an elderly Dutch couple depicts the Dutchman as a coarse barbarian (his hat could indicate he is a captain) with almost a penchant to cannibalism. Or as author Timon Screech describes in his book ‘Sex and the Floating World’: “…a wind-blown seadog with a woman seemingly of his own ethnic group although dressed in the costume of a different epoch.”
The presentation of two Westerners making love was very uncommon at this period. Other prints from that era depicting foreigners usually represent a foreign male in the company of a Japanese female.
The print was released when the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Companie) was still coming to Japan. For political reasons, hardly any such pictures were issued before 1790, after which the visits of the VOC ended.
The Dutch stayed at the Nagasakiya inn in the Nihonbashi region of Edo (nowadays Tokyo) and many residants stopped by to look at these strangers. Utamaro also may have observed the Dutch people on one of these visits, and drew the man’s portrait from memory. The woman was most probably based on older Western copperplate etchings since her clothing is obsolete.
Head of the Penis
The print has received so much attention to detail that even the head of the penis is sprinkled with mica (kira-zuri) to give it a shimmering effect. Utamaro‘s bon-vivant colleague and friend Kitao Masanobu once told him that he was repelled by the abomination of the penises he drew.
The expert Tom Evans also elaborates on this in his ‘Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan’:
“Most extraordinary of all is the final print, originally intended as a vicious attack on the Dutch. When first published this image must have seemed delightfully cruel to Japanese eyes. The grotesquely contorted faces and livid features are devoid of sensitivity and distorted by the crudest passion,
But now, removed from the racial tensions which provided the original motivation for the satire, we react primarily to its artistic excellence. We admire the daring with which every convention has been disregarded to produce a brilliant and novel composition, the delicate gaufrage of the Dutchman lowered drawers; and the fantastically detailed, lovingly delicate printing of the hair and genitals.
We are once more reminded of de Goncourt who stated that in his drawing of a phallus Utamaro revealed himself to be a draughtsman of the order of Michelangelo.”
Now, as promised the “feature film” (02:33 min) of the evening (…love that music!):
You can click HERE for the original artworks by Utamaro that are available in our gallery!