Tsukioka Settei 月岡雪鼎 (1710-1786)
The Treasure Chest of Erotic Women in Ecstasy
(Iro onna dairaku takara-beki 色女大楽宝開)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1751
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

While no one can deny that some works of shunga were intended to objectify women for the amusement of an exclusively male readership, several examples in this exhibition defy that stereotype. Among the erotic works featured here that parody literary conventions and institutionalized ways of thinking are some that address the pervasive sexism in Edo society. The title of this text by Tsukioka Settei, Erotic Women in Ecstasy (Iro onna dairaku) is a pun on the popular women’s etiquette manual Greater Learning for Women (Onna daigaku, 1729), whose companion text, Elementary Learning for Women, also is displayed in this vitrine.

Here, Settei comments upon the way in which various texts for female readers — including not only Greater Learning for Women but also fashion-oriented manuals such as Traditions of Fashion and Cosmetics in the Capitol (Miyako fūzoku kewai den), two volumes from which are displayed nearby — tend to fetishize various aspects of a woman’s appearance.

With a diagram entitled “The Thirty-Two Areas of a Beautiful Woman,” the artist pushes such objectification to the point of absurdity, praising such details as the piece of cartilage covering a woman’s ear canal, which he calls “the outline of her flower bud;” the tip of her index finger, which he refers to as “the nape of her stamen;” and even the comb decorating her hair, which he gloriously labels “the perch for birds to alight upon.” In bold contrast to these poetic phrases is the diagram itself, which immediately brings to mind a butcher’s beef cut chart.

View this book in its entirety on museum database (enabled through support by the Robert F. Lange Foundation)