Shunga—Japanese erotic art—has left an important legacy in Japanese art and society; new lavish book surveys museum’s shunga collection.
What happened to the genre of shunga (sexually explicit art) in modern Japan? Concluding the Honolulu Museum of Art’s acclaimed exhibition series on Japan’s sexual culture, Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art reveals how Japanese artists revolutionized eroticism in the arts amidst the country’s rapid westernization and in the aftermath of the Pacific War.
While many scholars contend that the production of erotic paintings and woodblock prints (shunga) in Japan ceased at the end of the 19th century, a close look at modern and contemporary Japanese art reveals that sexuality remains an important subject and that erotic themes and artistic styles endure to the present day. Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art explores how modern and contemporary Japanese art today relates to the sexual culture of pre-modern Japan.
The exhibition comprises four sections—Printmaking in the Early 20th Century, Photography, Manga and Contemporary Illustration, and Hawai‘i and Contemporary Japanese Erotic Art. On view are sketches of love scenes, woodblock prints of inter-species sex, photography of bondage, same-sex romance graphic novels—they reveal that eroticism is alive and well among contemporary Japanese artists in and outside of Japan.
With the Japanese government’s recent censorship of photographer Ryudai Takano’s works in a group exhibition at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art—the museum draped cloth over visible genitals in the photographs instead of removing them as police demanded—Modern Love takes on timely resonance.
“In the 1990s, the Japanese government decided to ease its restrictions on the publication of nude imagery, which encouraged much of the recent scholarship about erotic art—a phenomenon that we now refer to as the ‘shunga boom.’ Sadly, however, we now seem to be seeing a return to the censorship that prevented the general public from understanding the merits of this art genre through much of the 20th century,” says Stephen Salel, curator of Asian art at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and co-curator of Modern Love.
The exhibition begins with Hashiguchi Goyō (1880–1921), a woodblock-print designer best remembered for his demure portraits of nude females. A rare series of sketches depicting the artist in sexual encounters with his model, however, reveal him to be one of the most lyrical producers of explicit erotica in his generation.
Later artists such as photographer Araki Nobuyoshi (b. 1940) and manga master Maruo Suehiro (b. 1956) grapple with some of the most intensely debated issues of 20th-century Japanese erotica, including the complex ways in which gender and sexual orientation are defined within Japanese society and the popularization of grotesquerie as an art aesthetic.
The exhibition concludes with a celebration of artists living in Hawai‘i—Masami Teraoka (b. 1936), Mayumi Oda (b. 1941), and Yumiko Glover—who use art to discuss contemporary political issues that transcend their Japanese heritage.
Modern Love is co-curated by Shawn Eichman, the Curator of Asian Art, and Stephen Salel, the Robert F. Lange Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art.
The exhibition is accompanied by public programming that includes a lecture by noted shunga expert Dr. Ishigami Aki, a round-table discussion, a master class with manga artist Sakurazawa Erica, and films.
WHAT: Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art.
WHEN: Nov. 20, 2014-March 15, 2015.
WHERE: Honolulu Museum of Art, 900 Beretania St.