Earlier this month I discovered (and obtained) three large shunga paintings on silk from the early 20th century that I didn’t want to keep from you. They depict mesmerizing scenes starring a disfigured yokai (ghost) seducing a wicked drunkard, a Westerner involved in a secret love affair with a Japanese geisha, and two gay Noh performers engaged in a battle.
In a misty ominous setting under a plum blossom tree we witness the passionate encounter of a grubby vagrant engaged in a passionate encounter with a female yokai (ghost) under a cherry blossom tree (Fig.1). He pushes her head towards him in order to kiss her while he caresses her private parts with his foot. The man’s drunkenness (his twitching eyelid, the underwear on his head and the empty sake jars surrounding him) is aptly captured by the artist.
A funny detail are the street dogs that feast on the man’s leftovers (Fig.4). The body hair of the man and the scars on the back of the ghost’s legs and face are beautifully executed. The macabre sensuality is on par with the best of Kobayashi Eitaku (1843-1890).
The female figure is the spirit of the Komachi cherry tree, Kurozome. An evil man plans to builds a shrine and approaches an old tree for its wood. The spirit of the cherry tree appears as a courtesan. She needs no legs. He brags about his plans and wants to cut down the tree. Before he can raise his axe, she changes into a cherry branch and hits him. The painting is pretty large and measures 32 3/4 x 83 3/4 cm (13″ x 33″ inches).
This outstanding piece depicts a phenomenal scene of an ardent encounter in a dimly lit room between a Western man and a Japanese geisha. The sparse light comes from the only burning candle in the hallway.
The birdcage is an amusing detail that is sometimes included in scenes depicting Westerners (Dutch). The man is probably a Dutch member of a delegation on his way to pay a visit to the shogunal court in Edo (now Tokyo) and then the birds are a gift for the shōgun.
The name of this Japanese artist is unknown but besides the technical skills, a detail such as the woman’s curved foot also shows his great sense of intimacy. This painting is 32 3/4 x 85 cm (13″ x 33 1/2″ inches).
The last piece (Fig.9) takes us to a foggy backdrop near a Buddhist temple that serves as a battle ground for two Noh actors. They portray famous characters from the Noh theater (see Fig. 14), with one of them wearing a Hannya mask and threatening with a crutch while his opponent waves at him with Buddhist prayer beads. The latter is a waki (supporting actor) and has an exposed erection. All performers in noh are male so this is clearly a homoerotic reference.
Noh derived from the Japanese word for “skill” or “talent” is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. The drama is structured around song and dance. It is characterized by slow movement, poetic language, monotonous voices, and rich and heavy costumes.
Plots are usually drawn from legend, history, literature and contemporary events, and themes often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts and spirits. One key element of noh is the masks which the shite (the leading character) wears. Frequently used masks represent demons, spirits, as well as women and men of various ages.
The shite wears a kimono portraying several varying motifs such as a dragon holding a ball (Fig.12). From ancient times, dragons in Asia were associated with nature and particularly the weather. In the oldest depictions, the dragon is holding the sun — a red, flaming ball. Since dragons were believed to be supernaturally wise, perhaps it is only natural that they should seek or hold such a treasure.
The frightening face mask is the famous Hannya mask, representing a jealous female demon. It possesses two sharp bull-like horns, metallic eyes, and a leering mouth. The Hannya mask is said to be demonic and dangerous but also sorrowful and tormented, displaying the complexity of human emotions. When the actor looks straight ahead, the mask appears frightening and angry; when tilted slightly down, the face of the demon appears to be sorrowful, as though crying.
This last painting measures 32 3/4 x 84 2/3 cm (13″ x 33 1/3″ inches). It also includes a large unidentified artist’s seal and a poem. If someone can help me out with the translation of the poem I will appreciate it very much!
What do you think about these two shunga paintings? Leave your reaction in the comment box below….!!