If shunga is excluded from an evaluation of the history of ukiyo-e, then the contributions of the Edo artist Keisai Eisen (1790–1848) appear to be limited to his portraits of courtesans from the Yoshiwara brothel district, through which he perpetuated the style of his teacher, Kikukawa Eizan (1787–1867) as well as that of Eizan’s predecessor, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). While these accomplishments alone have secured his art historical reputation, some of Eisen’s finest achievements were in the field of erotica. This exhibition includes eighteen works by Eisen, including all three volumes of his masterpiece, News from the Bedroom: The Pillow Library (Keichū kibun: makura bunko, 1823) as well as eight selections from his series Picture Book: The Beautiful Grass of Women (Ehon fukamigusa, c. 1823).
One way in which Eisen furthered the stylistic development of shunga during the 19th century is clearly evident in the works displayed here. In an attempt to visually communicate the sensual pleasure of sex as well as the concept of aesthetic refinement (tsū) upon which so much of Japanese sexual culture was based, the artist portrays couples embracing in non-descript environments, their bodies fused into a perplexing montage of elegantly decorated textiles, flailing limbs, and anxious faces framed by perfectly coiffed hair.
Far from limiting himself to the external appearance of shunga, Eisen also documented in spectacular ways new understandings about sexuality. His anatomical studies showed human bodies not as sexual toys or beautiful objects but as complex, fragile organisms that required further research and intense care. Almost 100 years before Henry Gray (1827–1861) published his classic Anatomy of the Human Body (1918), Eisen was recording in News from the Bedroom: The Pillow Library the fascinating structure of reproductive organs. His scientific interest, however, was never cold and emotionally detached; Eisen insisted upon infusing those images with a powerful and sometimes unsettling sense of humor.