Japanese Erotic Art - Shunga
Japan has a rich sexual history which the Western World is beginning to take more interest in after the film "Memoirs of a Geisha". However, Western society's view of geisha is that they were simply high class prostitutes. This is not the case at all. Geisha literally translates to "Art Maker" or perhaps "Artist" and that is what they were. Geisha were brought up from an incredibly young age training in various Japanese arts such as painting, dancing, music, flower arranging, the Tea Ceremony. They are highly respected for their skills in art and conversation and those who could afford would pay for the company of these experts of their craft.
That is not to say that prostitution wasn't common in Japan though they were known as Oiran and are not considered to be the same thing as Geisha. Then during the American occupation of Japan during the 1940s, Oiran would dress in a similar fashion to Geisha and the Americans couldn't tell the difference and referred to them as "Geesha Girls" which has led to the misconception of Geisha being prostitutes.
When it comes to sex in Japanese art, most are familiar with the term "Shunga" which translates into "Image of Spring" and was a very common theme during Japan's Edo period between the 16th and 18th century though it is thought to have originated in China several centuries before then.
Erotic Art didn't become popular during the Edo period because of change in Japanese morals and tastes. Quite the opposite in fact. In 1661 the Shogunate announced an edict banning the production of Shunga in various forms. Before then eroticism in Japanese art can be found as far back as the 11th century.
Despite the ban, there was a huge demand for Shunga artwork, and when there is a market we often find there are people there to fill it and so Shunga continued to flourish though the artists rarely signed their works. New techniques in Woodblock printing were discovered which allowed artists to mass produce their work at very low cost.
Around this time Shunga had many roles in Japanese culture. It would often be displayed in "galleries" where people would pay a few yen to view the images, similar to adult cinemas today. The artwork was also being produced in small format erotic books known as "Pillow Books". Pillow Books were being produced as far back as the 11th century but were very expensive. However, with the advances in Woodblock printing it was possible at the time to reproduce these books, as well as prints, in large quantities and at low cost. Like so many other advances in modern societies, it was about money.
In 1722, enforcement of the edict became far more strict and drove the market underground, but this still did little to stop the production of Shunga.
Shunga maintained its popularity right up to the early 20th century, not coincidently around the time photography was becoming common. Eventually, erotic photography replaced the market for Shunga.
Japanese Erotic Art - Shunga
Martin van Maele
Franz von Bayros