The Aesthetic Evolution of Shunga: Imitation and Innovation

Given the fact that photographic equipment was not widely available in Japan, nor was life drawing (Japanese: shasei) popular beyond the painting school of Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) and his student Matsumura Goshun (1752–1811), the process through which artists designed images and produced compositions during the Edo period (1615–1868) deserves attention. In the disciplines of painting and printmaking, compositions and iconographic motifs often were based upon a very limited number of art historical precedents, such as illustrations in the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (Jieziyuan Huazhuan, 1679). A certain degree of redundancy among the images that artists produced, therefore, was inevitable.

Most shunga artists active during the Edo period likely were familiar with art historical precedents for their work, such as The Brushwood Fence Scroll (Koshibagaki zōshi), the original version of which reputedly dates to around 1172, and a later copy of which is displayed elsewhere in this exhibition. Many of the compositions that came to be valued as models within the genre of shunga, nevertheless, appear to have originated in the early 19th century and were repeatedly copied soon thereafter.

Despite this trend of recycling imagery, the late 19th century witnessed astounding innovation in the field of shunga. In order to accentuate particularly explosive moments in a woodblock-printed book, shunga artists collaborated with their publishers to employ fold-outs: flaps that were adhered to pages in the book and that could be lifted to reveal hidden images underneath. Artists and their publishers also developed the technology to produce articulated prints, in which a viewer could animate the figures by pulling on a lever that protruded slightly from the right edge of the print. When a viewer pulled and pushed the lever, the puppet moved in a way one would expect from a male character in an erotic encounter.