Lustful Octopus, Erotic Ninjas Spice Forbidden-Art Show

Katsushika Hokusai
"The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" a woodcut print by Katsushika Hokusai. It is featured in a Sotheby's Hong Kong exhibition. Source: Sotheby's Images

A bondage scene masterminded by a ninja, a frolicking fivesome and a lustful octopus.

No, these aren’t images downloaded from Internet porn sites. Centuries before Hugh Hefner and Larry Flint started peddling skin, Japan was producing sexually explicit prints known as “shunga” or “spring pictures.”

This form of Japanese erotica was popular with both men and women during the Edo period (1603-1868), which lasted until Japan opened itself up to Western influences and shunga became taboo.

More recently, the West has come to recognize shunga as a legitimate art form, something Japan has been slow to do.

Exhibitions have been held in Belgium, Finland, France and Hawaii, and now at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery. “Beyond the Paper Screen: An Exhibition of Japanese Erotic Prints from the Uragami Collection” features 60 exquisite woodblock prints.

Uragami Mitsuru, a Japanese collector who loaned his works to the Hong Kong show, says he’s been unable to organize a similar exhibition in Japan. He says he hopes greater international exposure will help convince Japanese institutions to display his collection back home.

“The Tokyo National Museum hesitated to show it and so far I haven’t been able to get the Mori Museum to agree apart from a few works. In bookshops you can see these images but why can’t the real exhibit show? It’s nonsense,” he said at the exhibition.

Floating World

The Sotheby’s show features shunga produced by some of Japan’s foremost ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) artists including Keisai Eisen, Katsukawa Shuncho and Kitagawa Utamaro.

Katsushika Hokusai, best known for his famous woodblock print “The Great Wave,” also excelled at shunga. His 1814 work, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” depicts a naked shell diver being sexually embraced by two octopuses. It has inspired others to produce tentacular erotica including Picasso and contemporary Japanese artist Aida Makoto.

In keeping with the ukiyo-e school, human faces in shunga works are highly stylized and rarely betray much emotion. The genitalia, by contrast, are highly naturalistic -- apart from their exaggerated size -- and rendered in graphic detail.

Many artists also included calligraphy, providing a running dialog to complete the scenes.

Typically, editions of between 200 and 1,000 wood block print were made, with standard formats rarely measuring more than 25 by 27 centimeters (9.8 inches by 10.6 inches). So popular were some shunga that printing shops rented them out, becoming a sort of precursor to video stores, Uragami said.

Shunga was more than just a source of titillation. It was also prized for its talismanic properties. It was common for samurai to keep a shunga print in their sword boxes. During the Meiji era (1868-1912), the government issued copies for soldiers to wear on the inside of their helmets (just as U.S. pilots painted pinup girls on their World War II planes for good luck).

“Beyond the Paper Screen” runs through July 31 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery, 5th Floor, One Pacific Place, 88 Queensway. For information:

The British Museum is also running a show based on Uragami’s collection entitled “Shunga: Sex and Humor in Japanese Art 1600-1900.” The show will run for three months from Oct. 3. For information:

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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