Shunga | Spring Pictures

One of the most unabashedly erotic images to ever grace the pages of an art history book came from the woodblock of iconic Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Widely known for his G-rated, Edo-era prints like The Great Wave at Kanagawa, the celebrated ukiyo-e painter and print-maker famously depicted a titillating love scene between a few octupi and a satisfied-looking human being. The masterpiece swiftly and simultaneously brought full frontal nudity, bestiality, and female orgasm to the forefront of fine art. The untitled illustrations are one of many sexualised paintings and tantalizing prints produced during the 17th C. Known as shunga, the genre was comprised of elaborate and highly erotic artworks that were banned from Japanese institutions for a significant portion of the 20th century.

  • Thankfully, an exhibit entitled ‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art‘ provided artists of the ukiyo-e genre their well-deserved spotlight. The collection of works by Japanese greats like Hokusai, Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Kunisada celebrated the taboo-breaking side of art history with a survey of over 300 years of traditional Japanese erotica.
  • The allure of Shunga, which translates to “spring pictures,” rests in the images ability to appeal to men and women of various sexual preferences.
  • Often these artworks were light-hearted and comedic, focusing not only on romantic moments but also on the bizarre and awkward contortions that are more laughter-inducing than arousing.

Artworks by Hokusai and others sometimes used sexual talismans, passed from partner to partner, friend to friend, and parent to child to use as both an educational manual and a good luck charm. In this way, shunga acted as the traditional precedent to contemporary anime and manga.


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