The Myth of the Bathhouse (c.1827) by Kunisada contains a sequence of illustrations aptly examining various levels of communication between the public and private area. The first image (Fig.1.) shows us two spaces within the bathhouse that are divided into an exterior space in the foreground, where a woman washing herself glances through the barrier of a partially opened sliding door into the background interior space, in which a naked male enjoys the relaxing steam.
In the second design (Fig.2.), the gaze has been reversed, and now it is the man who reaches out from the interior background to draw the woman inside with him. The viewer is also brought into the act as they spy not only upon the encounter between the man and the woman, but also upon several more women in a third room that opens to the right, while the sense of public space is expanded even further to the outside world through the window on the left, where a harbor is visible. Multiple layers of space interact simultaneously, each impinging upon the next with an ever-decreasing degree of privacy.
The third image (Fig.3.) develops upon the theme of outdoor space introduced through the open window, now transforming it into a more controlled private garden, where a woman relaxes with her cat, her vagina visible through her loose clothing. A male servant spies upon her from a nearby window.
Woman and the Cat
Not only does Kunisada once again use multiple levels of space functioning simultaneously to violate any sense of clear separation between public and private, but he further develops the theme through the introduction of multiple gazes, with the woman and the cat looking at each other, the man looking at the two of them, and the viewer watching the entire shunga scene (with an even further layer of self-gaze implied by a covered mirror in the woman’s bedroom interior).
This scene is followed by a humorous illustration (Fig.4.) of an interior scene with the woman now challenging the servant. The gazes are now reversed as she admonishes him directly, while he lowers his head and covers his face in shame. Again the contrast on public and private space is presented at this point, since their confrontation intrudes upon a couple having sex in the next room, separated from them only by a folding screen.
The following are other arresting scenes from The Myth of the Bathhouse series…
In this scene we are exposed to two various activities in two separate rooms. In the foreground on the left a woman is whitening her skin in front of a mirror while conversing with a friend standing behind her. In the bath area in the background a completely nude couple have an intimate exchange.
A passionate tongue-kissing couple can no longer suppress their lusts and make love on the bathroom floor. The whirlpool in the water of the hot tub in the floor enhances the tension of the design.
A private scene of two ladies in a bathhouse. One of them is creating fire for a wood-fired hot tub while the other lady is washing her private parts (look for the tattoo on her arm!).
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Source: ‘Shunga, Stages of Desire‘ issued by the Honolulu Museum of Art
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