Nishikawa Sukenobu 西川祐信 (1671-1750)
Erotic Book: Taiheiki (Makurabon taiheiki 枕本太平記)

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), c. 1716-1726
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

Most contemporary Western viewers have no intense emotional reaction to portraits of fully dressed courtesans, so prevalent in the history of Japanese painting and printmaking. By the standards set in our own popular culture, such images seem restrained and perhaps merely decorative. An illustration such as this, excerpted from a woodblock-printed book on the opposite side of this partition, however, reminds us how greatly concepts of sexuality can differ between cultures and time periods.

Is this image intended to be a farcical hyperbole about the extremes to which sexual frustration can drive us, or were bijinga (portraits of beauties) and yakusha-e (actor portraits) in fact occasionally used by men, women, and wakashū for the purpose of autoeroticism? Anecdotal evidence favors the latter explanation. Just as many sexually explicit artworks from the Edo period were intended for humor or instruction, non-explicit images seem to have been surprisingly provocative.

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