The Aesthetic Evolution of Shunga: The Katsushika and Utagawa Schools

Much like the work of Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694), Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770), and Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753–1806) during the late 17th and 18th centuries, the most celebrated ukiyo-e artists of the 19th century, including Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861), produced bold works of shunga that helped to further the genre’s aesthetic evolution. Picture Book: Patterns of Couples (Ehon tsui no hinagata, c. 1812), three selections from which are displayed here, was Hokusai’s most famous and most highly praised album of erotica. The compositions exude an intense sensuality in keeping with the relaxed mood of the figures themselves, and the artist’s attention to details such as the texture of fabrics gives the scenes a sense of elegance. A few years later, Hokusai’s student Katsushika Hokusū (active c. 1800s–1830s) published The Safflower Princess (Suetsumuhana, c. 1817), the style of which clearly owes a debt to Hokusai but which also displays Hokusū’s own unique, bawdy sense of humor.

During the 19th century, the field of shunga was dominated by the Utagawa School. When including non-explicit works that touch upon the sexual culture of the time, Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, Kunisada (1786–1865), Kunimaro (active c. 1830s–1860s), and their teacher Toyokuni I (1769–1825) produced almost half of the works on display in this exhibition. Their stylistic and conceptual contributions to the genre, accordingly, are too numerous to summarize simply. The sense of whimsy that they emphasized in all of their works, however, should not go unrecognized.