Sexual fatigue. Perhaps that is the best way in which to describe the state of shunga (erotic art, literally, “spring pictures”) in Japan at the dawn of the 19th century.

Since its beginning in the 17th century, this genre of paintings, woodblock prints and woodblock-printed books enjoyed immediate and enduring commercial success. The artists who produced it, including Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770), Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753–1806), and other pioneers of ukiyo-e (literally, “pictures of the floating world”), ensured that the artworks were rich with cultural references, aesthetic merit, and sources of interest above and beyond the topic of sex.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, the novelty of shunga as an art genre began to wane. The task of reviving the genre fell upon the shoulders of a new generation of artists: Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861) and their contemporaries. They succeeded in their endeavor by focusing upon lighthearted topics such as erotic humor as well as more complex sociological issues, like the mechanics of Japan’s sex industry. In addition, they introduced aspects that particularly appealed to a 19th-century audience, including characters from foreign countries and plots that dealt with the supernatural.

Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan is the second of three exhibitions that explore the development of Japan’s sexual culture through shunga. Similar to last year’s groundbreaking Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga, which featured works from the 17th and 18th centuries, this exhibition includes highlights from both the renowned James A. and Mari Michener Collection as well as the recently acquired Richard Lane Collection.

Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan is co-curated by Shawn Eichman, the Curator of Asian Art, and Stephen Salel, the Robert F. Lange Foundation Research Associate for Japanese Art.