By Artspace Editors. In the Western tradition, the idealized nude and—more explicitly—sex have long been sticking points in artistic discourse across generations—controversial for their beauty on the one hand, and its supposedly sinful nature on the other. In stark contrast, Japanese erotica in paintings and prints have held a ubiquitous position in society, starting with the Heian aristocracy of the ninth century and trickling down to a rising, modern urban middle class. We offer exclusive works you can't find anywhere else.
Shunga: What is this risqué Japanese erotic art really about?
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But it has taken centuries-old works of art for the country to challenge official reticence towards graphic depictions of sex. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people have flocked to a tiny museum in suburban Tokyo to cast their eyes over woodblock prints and paintings of couples, and sometimes groups, in the throes of sexual ecstasy. In one of the least explicit works, a semi-naked woman clutches a bamboo comb between her teeth, her gaze meeting that of the viewer. Others, though, abound with loosened or discarded kimono and the oversized genitalia of men and women in all manner of sexual contortions. Voyeurism and orgies are recurring themes.
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More to the point, the story is one of many that originates from shunga, an art form from the Edo period in Japan, which centres on eroticism. This was the third event for Floating World, an immersive dinner experience created by Takayo Malone, who was also our host for the evening. More specifically, shunga developed from the Japanese art movement known as ukiyo-e, which is translated as the pictures of the Floating World. Back then, shunga was given as wedding gifts for young couples to educate them, or to couples who wanted to spice up their love lives.
Most shunga are a type of ukiyo-e , usually executed in woodblock print format. While rare, there are extant erotic painted handscrolls which predate ukiyo-e. Following the aesthetics of everyday life, Edo-period shunga varied widely in its depictions of sexuality.