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Indepth Arts News:

"Forbidden Images: Erotic Art from Japan’s Edo Period"
2002-11-20 until 2002-01-26
Helsinki City Art Museum
Helsinki, , FI

Helsinki City Art Museum will stage an exhibition of a unique collection of Japanese erotic art from the Edo period (1603–1867) with rarely-seen masterpieces by some of the most famous artists of Japan, including Utamaro, Hokusai and Kunisada. In fact, alongside their better-known work, almost all the old masters produced such candid portrayals of the many forms of sexuality. These images form an important element of Japan’s art and cultural history, though they are repressed and censored in Japan up till recent years. The collection displayed in the exhibition includes paintings, woodblock prints and illustrated books.

In Japan, these candidly sexual images are known as shunga or spring pictures. Erotic motifs played an important role in the ukiyo-e genre of art that emerged in Edo-period Japan. The term ukiyo itself means ‘floating world’ or ‘world of pleasures’. The genre flourished particularly in Edo (modern Tokyo), the new and dynamic capital of the period known by the same name. Although the theatre and houses of pleasure were common motifs in ukiyo-e, the majority of the genre’s erotic or shunga images do not portray actors or prostitutes. Instead, they show married couples of all ages, shy and inexperienced youngsters, adulterous wives and husbands, liaisons across class boundaries, and same-sex lovers.

Shunga is life-affirming and tolerant. It is also essentially humorous. This is true especially of the witty and comical texts and dialogues between couples that often accompanied the images. The erotic pictures and book illustrations were enjoyed by all ranks of society and the woodblock printing technique made it possible to mass-produce them at low cost, which made shunga accessible to almost everyone. The immense popularity of the graphic novel in modern Japan is certainly to some extent the result of the popularity of the illustrated shunga books.

Japan has a strong tradition of erotica and its people have held various associated beliefs. In the Japanese middle ages, the samurai believed that sex would safeguard them against misfortune. It was widely believed in the Edo period that placing a shunga in a home or storehouse would provide protection against fire and as late as the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) soldiers carried erotic books with them as good-luck charms.

Although the general attitude towards shunga was open and positive in the Edo period, the genre was subject to censorship at times. The restrictions on manufacture and distribution were cleverly skirted, however, and shunga was always available – perhaps there was no real desire to prevent it after all. It was not until the late 19th century that the relatively permissive stand of the authorities suddenly changed with the introduction of Western ideals and morals to the formerly closed society of Japan.

The curators of the exhibition are the esteemed shunga scholar, Professor Monta Hayakawa (International Research Center for Japanese Studies), and the journalist Yoshihiko Shirakura. The exhibition is a collaborative effort between the Helsinki City Art Museum and the Transform Corporation in Tokyo. The works are on loan from Japanese private and public collections. Some of the works will be replaced by others a week before Christmas so that there will be two distinct collections on display (the first from November 20 to December 18, 2002 and the second from December 22, 2002 to January 26, 2003). A series of prints, woodblocks and tools illustrating the technique of woodblock printing will also be displayed. They are on loan from the Department of Graphic Design of the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

Kitagawa Utamaro, Picture Book
Pulling Komachi
Photo by Yoshitaka Uchida

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