French English


        Something that greatly calls the attention of the Western viewer of Japanese art is the prolific production of erotic imagery. Though much of it is known to us today as shunga, it must be pointed out that this term specifically refers to erotic art produced in Japanís cities during the Edo period (1615-1868). Special politcal and social conditions had much to do with the large production of erotic images during that time.

        During the rule of the shogun Iemitsu (1623-1651), the sankin kotai or 'alternate attendance' arrangement was instituted. In order to more-closely control the allegiance of the daimyo (local rulers), the shogun required them to reside in Edo every other year. The daimyo did not move to Edo without company. They brought with them an immense number of attendants, sometimes numbering in the thousands. All of these attendants were men, which explains the overwhelming male population of Edo during this period.

        Having left their families behind for the year and arriving at the exciting capital, the nightlife of these men usually developed in Edoís 'pleasure district' (called Yoshiwara), the real 'floating world' referred to in the ukiyo-e. After being burned down in a great fire, a new Yoshiwara was constructed outside the city. Apart from now being distant, the new 'pleasure district' was also very expensive, which meant many men could only imagine this place they could not visit. Hence the importance of shunga.

        Although there were also paintings, these images usually circulated in cheap printed form, and were referred to in various euphemistic ways, as it was not something people showed off. It also explains why many shunga albums are now incomplete, with torn-out pages or missing covers. They were objects people used without much care, and did not usually possess high artistic quality. This does vary, though, in the case of women, who were also consumers of shunga.

        During the alternate years in which the daimyo returned to their provinces, their families remained in Edo. This meant that there was a considerable population of very refined women in the city. These women, separated from their husbands, lived in a closed environment and rarely had the chance to meet men, which explains their use of shunga. As has been said, their case was a little different to that of most men. Whereas the main production of erotic images was limited to cheap prints, that allowed easy transport and concealment, there also existed expensive, lavishly-produced, painted albums. It is thought that wealthy women would be the main consumers of this type of shunga, since it is known that in many cases these albums were part of womenís trousseaus.

        Most Japanese painters produced shunga albums, although it is not always easy to assert their authorship because they used pseudonyms. Hokusai was certainly one of them. It was during the Tempō period (1830-1844) that he made a large quantity of shunga, although his most famous erotic prints were produced between 1820 and 1830 in a series of three albums entitled The Young Pines (Kinoye no Komatsu). In this series we find the famous and fearsome image entitled The Dream of the Fishermanís Wife, where an enormous octopus swallows the lower body of a woman, while a young octopus gently enwraps her mouth with its tentacles. It seems that even in this field Hokusai was one of the most original artists of his time.

You can find examples of Hokusaiís erotic output on Image-Bar.

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