The word shunga (“spring picture”), used to identify woodblock prints that portray erotic subjects, is not simply a euphemism for the awakening of natural urges. Rather, as both these books inform us, it is an abbreviation of a longer Chinese name, shunkyu higa (“secret pictures from the Spring Palace”), which refers to ancient Chinese beliefs about the balancing of yin and yang in imperial erotic practice.
The frank depiction of erotic scenes, and the place of this genre in the history of woodblock prints, is fully expounded by Rosina Buckland in an illustrated book drawing on the British Museum’s collection. The improved quality of the reproduction is notable, as against older volumes, besides the matter-of-fact treatment of the subject. There have been several recent studies of these prints, setting them in historical context, and dispensing with the myths that may surround them.
One of the more common misunderstandings is that they are intended to work like modern pornography, purely for titillation, whereas most show “ordinary, consensual relations between lovers, husband and wife, or sometimes prostitute and client.” Their purpose was partly celebratory, and occasionally instructive, as well as stimulating. They were produced in large numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries, generally in albums, by some of the most distinguished artists of the day, despite being “nominally banned commodities.”
The Tokugawa government did not unduly restrict the sale of these pictures, but liked to keep it within bounds and, as with licensed brothel quarters, only became concerned when it seemed likely to disturb public decorum, or result in political subversion. Otherwise most things were tolerated, and so the prints show all kinds of sexual configurations, heterosexual and homosexual, sometimes with multiple partners. Buckland notes how passionately both sexes give themselves to pleasure.
The key to understanding many of the prints lies in the surrounding commentary, voiced either by the participants themselves, or by someone else observing them. There are certain standard features: People are rarely naked, but hitch their garments up to engage in copulation; genitals are drawn in detail, and as large as the heads or faces of their owners; clothes are given more careful attention than anatomy. Over time there are changes in style, with the later period, before the opening to the West, becoming more intense.
Sexual violence, says the author, is more noticeable in the 19th century, as the future becomes uncertain. After the arrival of missionaries who were shocked at public nakedness and mixed bathing, efforts were made to change traditional customs. At the same time, as the second book informs us, erotic prints circulated widely overseas, especially among artists and intellectuals. But postwar Japan became acutely conscious of its shameful past, so prints like these could not be exhibited.
I remember, 20 years or so ago, seeing a Japanese boy craning over a glass case displaying such prints at a gallery in London. Much of that has changed now, though there are still restrictions on genital display in certain media. As Buckland remarks, some of the prints in the British Museum belonged to the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who passed them on to other artists. She does not discuss what influence they might have had.
The effect of Japonisme on painting is well known, and happened very quickly once Japanese prints became available. Visual artists readily appreciated the difference in what they saw, while literary exchange took considerably longer, owing to the difficulty of the language. From prints copied in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), to experiments with style in those of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the effect is apparent everywhere.
Little known, and never before explored, is the later influence on Pablo Picasso.
“Secret Images: Picasso and the Japanese Erotic Print” derives from an exhibition held at the museum dedicated to the work of the Spanish artist (1881-1973) in Barcelona. Though he “was the first to deny any interest in such a widely popular trend,” the book nonetheless finds traces of Japanese influence in some of his early sketches, part of the ubiquitous imagery of the 1890s, not just in Paris but in Barcelona. He drew and drafted posters for the Japanese actress Sadayakko when she was in Europe. Later on he acquired dozens of shunga for his personal collection.
One memorable image appears in both books: that of the woman and the octopus, or rather a large and small octopus, one at each end of her, while their tentacles explore the parts between. An essay by Richard Bru traces the use made of this image in European art, where it came to be seen as more terrifying than ecstatic, partly because the accompanying text was not translated, but also perhaps because it overlapped with the idea of the mythical kraken, monsters once feared by mariners and now thought to derive from sightings of giant squid.
In extreme old age, “the time at which only Eros can ward off Thanatos,” Picasso produced a series of erotic drawings that seem to resemble certain prints from his collection. They portray a voyeuristic pope, and there is a humor in them that recalls some of the pictures in the other book (for example, a goldfish saying “I hope he’s not going to wash his hands in this water when he’s done.”)
These scholarly, large-format volumes are beautifully produced, and complement each other well.