The Eccentric Kobayashi Eitaku and His Confrontational Erotic Universe
The undervalued Kobayashi Eitaku (1843-1890) became a novice at the age of thirteen of the painter Kano Eitoku (1815-1891). He climbed the ladder working as a court painter for the Hikone lords became their official painter and was granted the title of samurai.
He created illustrations for the Yokohama Mainichi Shinbun after the Meiji Restoration (started in 1868) and was notorious for producing countless color woodblock prints and so-called chirimen-bon (crepe-paper books) illustrations.
Eitaku is reported to have made shunga but are rare within his oeuvre. Furthermore his corpus of fine works are often carelessly excluded at exhibitions dedicated to Meiji era Nihonga (paintings) or prints. This due to the fact that he worked within the traditional Japanese artistic conventions, techniques and materials.
In the 1870s Kobayashi Eitaku made a subversive scroll displaying the decay of a female corpse, identified as a prostitute. In nine consecutive tableaux we see a fully clothed body degenerate into bony remnants, picked clean by dogs and birds.
The work was quite explicit at the time and even today it has the ability to shock the public, as the progressive decay is not stylized, but depicted in a realistic manner. This would give the spooky impression that Eitaku may have sketched and painted it from an actual “dead” model.
Actually, the work should be interpreted in a Buddhist way. Kusozu (illustrations of decomposing corpses) were favored in Japanese art, because they were seen as a reflection on the transitory nature of life. In a way it also can be seen as an erotic work, as a part of the shunga tradition. Since 2008 the scroll has been part of the collection of the British Museum.
In the latter part of his career (1880s) he produced ‘The Drawing Book of Designs for Everything’, an instruction book for aspiring graphic artists. This book is filled with scenes varying from scenes of nature landscapes, kabuki actors and even mythical creatures.
Another fascinating set of paintings by Eitaku called ‘Nikuhitsu shunga makimono’ display twelve different erotic scenes, consisting a majority that evoke bestiality. Although the animals appear to be imaginative rather than realistic, because a lot of them have a grotesque size. He portrays females being approached by a giant mouse, squid, macaques, toad, fox, mole, bat, snake, horse, a lion tamarin, a human and a ghost (see images!).
The involvement of animals in coital poses with humans is not that rare within ancient Japanese erotic art but normally it were the domestic animals that were featured. What makes this set so unusual is that the animals seem to be empowered with mysterious powers (the bat, fox, mole and toad).
This representation of animals is certainly remarkable but can be explained by the artist’s unconventional character for which he was well known. There also seems to be no connection between the images.
The explicit scenes shown here are most probably not displayed for their own good, since there is a lot of attention to the aesthetic qualities, color and detail of the costumes and juxtaposing body parts, and the technical craftmanship of the composition.
One of Eitaku’s pupils was the well-known Meiji artist Tomioka Eisen (1864-1905), who studied under him at the age of 18.
It is said that he was supported by the Meiji genius Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889).
More images from ‘Nikuhitsu shunga makimono’ by Kobayashi Eitaku:
In the following video you can find the complete set: