Suzuki Harunobu and Japanese Erotica

On the 7th of July 1770, allegedly, Japanese woodblock print artist Suzuki Harunobu died of a sudden illness. The place and real cause of his death remain unknown. In fact, except for his artistic endeavours, very little is known about his life at all. Born in Edo (modern Tokyo), Harunobu was the first to successfully produce multicoloured prints called nishiki-e (brocade pictures). Their sumptuous and brilliant colours required the use of only the highest quality paper and costly pigments. The prints “were characterized by suppleness of line, rhythmic composition, simplicity and economy of design, and bright but delicate use of green, blue, purple, brown, pink, yellow, and gray. The innocent expressions of the doll-like women and boyish men, and the lyrical and ethereal aura of the designs, were particularly irresistible.” (Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Yoshiwara: The 41J887Yhq-L._SX342_Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan). The prints were also unique from a compositional point of view. Harunobu was, in fact, the first successful artist to combine the technical accomplishment of full-colour printing with a design that suited the medium well. In his prints he depicted scenes from contemporary life, especially the Kabuki theatre and the courtesans of Yoshiwara. Another group of his prints, called shunga, dealt with various erotic subjects.

Translated literally from Japanese, shunga means ‘picture of spring’, and ‘spring’ is a common euphemism for sex. Shunga challenges ancient traditions and typically reflects the values and passions of everyday life in the new urban city. It depicts the ordinary people, always fully clothed, unlike the Western norms of erotica that is characterised by nudity. Scenes are often exaggerated, vibrant and opulent, yet simultaneously elegant and curious, and explore the full spectrum of sexual possibilities, which gave shunga such a large audience and popularity at the time. Shunga originates in the Heian period, which spanned between the eighth and twelfth century. However, it was during the Edo period (1603 to 1867) that shunga became particularly popular. The invention of woodblock printing increased the quantity and quality of prints significantly, making them more accessible to a larger number of people. Even though, officially, shunga was banned by the government, this kind of imagery continued to be produced with little difficulty.

Yoshiwara-The_Glittering_World2By the nineteenth century shunga reached Europe. “According to legend, Japanese prints first entered Europe in an unusual and surprising way. These art works, which are now highly prized and valuable, were so inexpensive and widely circulated in nineteenth-century Japan that they were practically worthless. Since they were quick to produce and to issue, prints were ephemeral pop culture objects, subject to the vagaries of fashion. Many were quickly discarded or recycled, with the paper sometimes being used as packaging in crates of porcelain and tea sent to new European markets. All different types of prints are said to have found their way to Europe as scrap packaging: landscapes, portraits, prints of celebrities and even erotica were used, which must have been surprising discoveries for their unsuspecting European recipients.” (Majella Munro, Masterclass: Understanding Shunga: A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art). However, the erotic nature of shunga, was not particularly appreciated by nineteenth-century Westerners. While the Japanese perceived it as pleasant and natural, for the Western recipients shunga were “vile pictures executed in the best style Japanese art” (Monta Hayakawa, C. Andrew Gerstle, Who Were the Audiences for “Shunga”, Japan Review (26), 2013).

Eventually, the introduction of Western culture and technologies to Japan, particularly the importation of photo-reproduction techniques, affected the popularity of shunga. It could no longer compete with erotic photography, leading to its eventual decline.

Examples of Harunobu’s shunga images: