Masami Teraoka (b. 1936)
Sarah and Octopus / Seventh Heaven
United States, 2001
Woodblock print; twenty-nine color woodcut on Hosho paper
Partial Purchase and Gift of Masami Teraoka and Catharine Clark Gallery, 2007

The image of a woman wrestling with an octopus, originating from 14th-century literature, eventually developed into the most celebrated artwork in the history of shunga.

To some extent, this work by Teraoka echoes the whimsical tone of Hokusai’s print. In the conversation inscribed across the top of the print, the creature reveals himself to be a rather clumsy and inexperienced lover:

Octopus: You look so delicious in that pose. Is this your clitoris I’m feeling?

Sarah: Hey, don’t be so hasty! Slow down! Let me enjoy what you’re doing to my clitoris as much as possible.

Octopus: Is this the right spot? Or further inside? How about here? Or here?

Sarah: Your suction cups are too weak. Feel free to suck me as hard as you can.

(Translation by the artist, 2014)

Underlying such humor, however, is a somber reference to the AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) crisis. The woman holds a female condom in her right hand, and seven other used condoms, numbered by the artist with kanji characters, appear throughout the scene. As HIV infection remains an imminent risk in contemporary society, and as some feel that frank discussion is the most effective safeguard against those risks, works of erotic art such as Sarah and Octopus / Seventh Heaven now shoulder political expectations and responsibilities that shunga artists of the Edo period would never have imagined.

The video displayed at this link reveals the sequence of twenty-nine stages through which Teraoka, in collaboration with the Takamizawa Print Shop in Tokyo, Japan, produced this woodblock print. Also on view here are several sketches, preparatory studies, and annotated color proofs that reveal the gradual development of Teraoka’s composition.