Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan at the Honolulu Museum

Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan at the Honolulu Museum
Yareah Magazine

Opening Nov. 14 is Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan, the Honolulu Museum of Art’s second exhibition in a series of three on shunga, or Japanese erotic art.


Keisai Eisen (1790-1848). Untitled, from the series ‘Picture Book: The Beautiful Grass of Women’ (Ehon fukamigusa), Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), c. 1823. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003 (2005.0114). Detail

Tongue in Cheek looks at lighthearted topics such as erotic humor as well as more complex sociological issues, like the mechanics of Japan’s sex industry. In addition, it introduces unique aspects of 19th-century shunga, such as xenophobic depictions of foreigners, a growing interest in supernatural subject matter, and the embrace of grotesquerie as an aesthetic.

Similar to last year’s groundbreaking Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga, which featured the pioneers of ukiyo-e (literally, “pictures of the floating world”) in the 17th and 18th centuries, this exhibition includes highlights from the renowned James A. and Mari Michener Collection as well as the Richard Lane Collection. The 19th-century artists represented in Tongue in Cheek include masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1862). The exhibition is co-curated by Shawn Eichman, the Curator of Asian Art, and Stephen Salel, the Robert F. Lange Foundation Research Associate for Japanese Art.

As shunga’s initial audience became accustomed to the genre in the 17th and early 18th centuries, artists “turned up the volume” in the 19th century, says co-curator Salel, adding humor, referencing popular culture trends such as tales of the supernatural (available in anthologies such as The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons) and sumo, and addressing social issues like the increased presence of foreigners—especially American Commodore Matthew Perry and his sailors, who are depicted looking similar to tengu, Japanese goblins.

Accompanying selected works are iPads featuring short, engaging video segments delving deeper into the subject matter. In one podcast, Salel created a gif of a paper puppet in action.

“The exhibition addresses how interesting shunga is as a genre,” says Salel. “The art is skillfully made with very serious intent—it is equal in level to landscapes and portraiture.” 

The museum’s previous shunga exhibition, The Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga, was a finalist for the Association of Art Museum Curators’ Award for Excellence for Outstanding Small Exhibition in April (the award went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—good company to be in). The design of this second show uses the same layout, with sliding shoji doors greeting visitors.

The doors are a beautiful design element as well as a gateway—due to the graphic nature of the exhibition, entry is restricted to visitors age 18 and older.

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