Peruse an 1814 sketchbook by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and eventually you’ll come across a bashful, wide-eyed octopus. You’d never guess that the innocent creature leads a secret life of debauchery. But a few years later, there he is on a woodblock print, still wide-eyed, now presented by Hokusai in a moment of infamous passion—his bulbous head pushed between the legs of a young woman, delivering a rather well-received session of cunnilingis. Hilarious and startling, it’s just one example of the explicit shunga, or “pictures of spring,” in an exhibition at the Museum of Sex surveying four centuries of Japan’s cartoonish pornography.
In the 1600s, shunga emerged as a prurient spin-off of woodblock-print art called
ukiyo-e, which depicted scenes and figures from the so-called floating world—the culture of leisure and entertainment that began to flourish in Edo, the new imperial capital. It was the city’s busy brothel district that provided the inspiration. Artists who had mastered portraits of actors and samurai found an eager market for pictures of sex in all its varieties and produced them, often anonymously but in their signature styles, by the hundreds. Hokusai, in fact, created what’s become probably the most-admired work of Japanese art, Great Wave Off Kanagawa, but he is also responsible for that lecherous octopi and a book of orgasmic moments called The Adonis Plant.
Combining the essence of comics—minimalist faces, broad gestures—with delicate lines, bold colors, and elaborate costumes, ukiyo-e slips almost gid
dily into the carnal. In shunga, a frisky elegance exalts the cruder exaggerations of swollen vulvas and tree-trunk phalluses. Utagawa Kunisada, a prolific master represented by several works, was particularly strong in this way—graceful curves of limbs and robes, coursing through expressionist hues, create a sense of motion. His sex has a joyous vigor.
The exhibit’s prints, most of which date from the mid 1800s, display all the familiar possibilities—positions and penetrations, threesomes, masturbation, voyeurs, dildos—and typically involve Edo’s high-priced prostitutes known as oiran. But to please other tastes, the artists ranged across wider territory. Among several domestic fantasies, one attributed to Kikugawa Eizan (another stylish craftsman) shows a baby boy suckling the breasts of his mother as she engages a man at the other end. There are also medically detailed close-ups (sometimes from brothel guidebooks), obligatory scenes of rape and bondage, and plenty of satire. A spirited work from the normally utilitarian Utagawa School places an embarrassed couple copulating en plein air opposite three snickering dogs, whose jaunty postures and sly expressions suggest the artist’s bemused regard of shunga.
The exhibit suffers from a reliance on reproductions and from a poorly designed peep-show gimmick, which forces visitors to stoop or crouch to view the prints. Annoying, too, is a repeating series of intrusive recorded announcements that dispense various Edo-period tidbits on topics such as pubic hair or postcoital napkins. And the wall text disappoints by not offering any translation of the prints’ Japanese scripts.
At its end, the exhibit attempts to demonstrate how shunga, which essentially disappeared under the censorship of the late 19th century, influenced the later cartoon porn of hentai-manga comics and anime. Though both may borrow past ideas (moles, roaches, and aliens perform like the octopus, albeit with less love), their muscular sequences of wet, explosive sex owe more to Marvel. A representative title, Spermtank, neatly sums it up.
Shunga doesn’t get much attention from museums, for obvious reasons. But the exhibit, despite its faults, makes a fresh case for the form as high art. The best of it—conjures an energy of color, composition, and humor not found in the more mannered, “acceptable” images of ukiyo-e, as if the artists were discovering fuller expressions in anonymity. The sex, too, deserves interest, not for the titillation, but for the reminder—comforting or troubling, it’s difficult to say—that we’ve been buying the same skin-trade fantasies for 400 years. What goes around comes around, so to speak.