Sex. Few topics are as universally understood and as instrumental in forming our identities as adult human beings. Sexuality has consistently surfaced as a topic of visual art throughout the history of various cultures. It particularly pervades the genre of ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world,” which, for most contemporary viewers, has come to characterize Japanese art of the Edo period (1615-1868).
No two individuals, however, perceive the subject of sexuality in the same way; our personal experiences, moral beliefs, and culturally defined attitudes about sex stir within each of us entirely different yet equally intense emotional reactions. Accordingly, collectors and art historians who focus upon ukiyo-e have generally presented a censored, distorted vision of the genre, not only conveniently overlooking the artworks’ historical, economic, and sociological contexts, but also obscuring the genre’s underlying theme of sexuality.
In particular, the sub-genre of shunga (literally “spring pictures,” referring to sexually explicit images) has long been banished from polite discussions of ukiyo-e or at best marginalized as an art-historical oddity. When its importance within the genre of ukiyo-e is clearly recognized, however, shunga offers us remarkable insights into Edo culture. Perhaps the most challenging of those insights is the realization of how profoundly the ideas about sexuality prevalent in early modern Japanese society differ from our own. Consequently, those of us who hope to understand how sexuality was expressed and discussed during the Edo period must first withhold our judgment, set aside our personal values, and strive to appreciate these artworks on their own terms. This is the goal of this exhibition: to present shunga as it was understood at the time it was made, to explore its intimate interconnection with other types of ukiyo-e, and to gain an understanding of the culture in which it was produced and widely enjoyed.
As the first of three annual shows that highlight the Honolulu Museum of Art’s extensive collection of Japanese erotic art, developed over decades by the renowned Japanese art scholars James A. Michener (1907-1997) and Richard D. Lane (1926-2002), this exhibition focuses on the early formation of shunga during the 17th and early 18th centuries. The artists featured here include the most celebrated figures in the history of ukiyo-e printmaking. The prestigious stature of these artists strongly suggests not only that ukiyo-e was largely devoted to erotic themes but also that the people of Edo Japan, including these artists, approached the topic of sexuality with a surprisingly nonchalant attitude.
This exhibition presents artwork that is clearly erotic in nature side-by-side with texts and images that discuss sexuality in less direct ways. In doing so, it seeks to address three pressing questions about the erotic culture of Edo Japan that have not yet received sufficient scholarly attention. Who was the intended audience of Japanese erotica, and what was the artwork’s intended purpose? How was gender defined in pre-modern and early modern Japan? How did the sex industry of Edo Japan function, and to what extent does mainstream Japanese art validate that industry? We hope that you find the answers offered by this exhibition to be compelling and thought-provoking.