G - Shunga Prints

Please note that some of these images are sexually explicit and may offend.

Translated literally, the Japanese word `shunga` means pictures of spring; spring being a common euphemism for sex. Shunga prints were enjoyed by men and women of all classes. Superstitions and customs surrounding shunga suggest this to us as it was considered a lucky charm against death for a Samurai to carry shunga (hence the postcard size of some of the prints) and it was considered a protection against fire in merchant warehouses and the home. From this we can deduce that samurai, Chonin (social class containing merchants and the like) and even housewives all owned shunga. It was traditional to present a bride with shunga.

After 1722 most artists refrained from signing shunga as an edict made it necessary to have permission from the city commisioner to print them which naturally forced many underground. Some of the artists circumvented this by `hiding` their  signatures on fans, screens and the like. The story of each shunga can be found in the accompanying texts within the pictures themselves and in the symbols of the props in the background. Symbolism featured widely which would have been understood by the viewers at the time. Such as the use of plum blossoms to represent virginity or tissues to indicate ejaculation. There were obvious symbols as cherries and others such as plums which represented older men who ripened with age, chrysanthemums symbolised the anus and azeleas homosexual love.

`The other day I bought some albums of Japanese obscenities. They delight me, amuse me, and charm my eyes.I look on them as being beyond obscenity, which is there, yet seems not to be there, and which I do not see, so completely does it disappear into fantasy.

The violence of the lines, the unexpectedness of the accessories, the caprice in the poses and the objects, the picturesqueness, and, so to speak, the landscape of the genital parts. Looking at them, I think of Greek art, boredom in perfection, an art that will never free itself from the crime of being academic !` Edmond de Goncourt in his Journal October 1863.

For further in-depth information we recommend reading `Sex and the Floating World. Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820` written by Timon Screech.