Fig.15. ‘Aristocratic couple‘ (c.1890s) from an untitled series attributed to Tomioka Eisen
Dutch ukiyo-e expert Uhlenbeck says: “The strong lines used to delineate genitalia create a dynamism that would otherwise be absent” and art historian Timon Screech has suggested that anatomical/gender differentiation is lacking in shunga. Rather, clothes distinguish men from women and this is why complete nudity is relatively rare in shunga. Furthermore, the enlarged sexual organs provide the ultimate method to distinguish men from women. The lack of gender-specific anatomy in prints compels the artist to focus on genitalia and clothing.
Japanese art authority Tanaka Yuko makes the further observation that shunga are ‘as a kingdom of cloth’. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century the artists Eizan and Eisen excelled in a style of shunga in which sexual activity is almost totally overshadowed by mounds of cloth. The gorgeous kimono patterns and the sumptuous fabrics indicate an opulence not encountered in shunga before this time.
Tanaka points out that perhaps this accent on fabrics had to do with links between ukiyo-e printmakers, drapers and textile designers. It would be interesting to know if drapery houses also sponsored shunga prints. Textiles thus set the ‘erotic’ stage and accentuate the compositional focal point – male and female genitalia.
During the Edo period alone, around 3,000 shunga books were created, plus a vast number of paintings, prints of various sizes (usually in sets of twelve), and more. It is almost impossible to collect everything, both because of the quantity and because of the rareness of items and their increasing prices. Therefore, my first advice to the shunga collector is to concentrate on a specific niche close to his/her heart: a specific artist, a specific period of time or a specific subject.
Due to age and the fragility of the washi paper (handmade from natural fibres) on which shunga works were printed, many suffer from the ravages of time and mistreatment, with damage such as burns, missing ages, worm holes, water stains, and colour bleeding due to moisture and humidity. Many have torn or worn lower corners as a result of excessive age turning. Some have been mounted on various later backings, filled-in with colours, or written over by successive owners.
The best method of storing your prints is to keep them between sheets of washi paper in hard-cover albums. If you would like to display them, place them on washi paper before framing, to avoid acidity, and keep them away from intense light, especially sunlight, which will cause the colors to fade.
Shunga prices have risen consistently in the last few years and, given the gradual increase in freedom relating to the subject in Japan, will probably continue to increase. By taking good care of your collection, you will be enhancing its value and, more importantly, you will be helping preserve an important part of the art and history of Japan and the world.
We hope you enjoyed the article and wish you lots of fun learning about and collecting shunga…!
Sources: ‘Japanese Erotic Fantasies’ by C. Uhlenbeck, ”Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan by Tom and Mary Evans, ‘Japanese Erotic Art, the Hidden World of Shunga‘ by Ofer Shagan, ‘Poem of the Pillow and Other Stories‘ by Gian Carlo Calza, ‘Japanese Erotic Fantasies, Shunga by Harunobu and Koryusai‘by Inge Klompmakers, ‘Shunga, Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art‘ by Timothy Clark, C. Andrew Gerstle and more, ‘Shunga, Stages of Desire‘ by Honolulu Museum of Art, ‘The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga‘ (Vol. 2,4,5,7,12,14,15,16 and 18) by Hayashi Yoshikazu and Richard Lane.