(picture taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/Katsushika_Hokusai_-_Fukujuso.jpg)
Shunga is one of the hidden treasures of traditional Japanese art, inspiring a period of erotic art that both fascinated and influenced an entire culture.
The beginnings of Shunga can be dated back to the period of Ukiuo-e (floating world) between the 16th and 18th centuries. The ‘Floating World’ period reflected an impermanent world of fleeting beauty and entertainment, far removed from the hardships and responsibilities of the every day world. Most art from this period was executed in woodblock print, making it easy to produce at a high quality.
Translated to “Image of Spring”, the term ‘Shunga’ refers to erotic paintings that depict couples in the throws of love and passion.
Most of these works were considered to be extremely pornographic, exposing the human anatomy with no consideration for modesty. Deciding to capitalize on the concept of visual stimuli, some businessmen would hire artists to paint Shunga before charging entry to people who wished to view the work and fantasize in a room. This, some would argue , marked the beginning of the porn industry.
Shunga was also produced in little books, known as “Pillow books” which served as guides to love making for young members of the Bougeoise. The pictures in the books would teach them all they needed to know about foreplay, sexual positions and proper sexual hygiene.
Despite the proliferation of Shunga, as an art form it remained frowned upon by purists in Japan, who considered its content too explicit and obscene. As a result, well known artists who painted Shunga never signed their work, preferring to remain anonymous so as not to harm their career.
An aspect unique to Shunga is its ability to capture passion in a way that is not seen in Western art. Given the cultural attitude towards erotic art at the time, it is a significant achievement to represent couples in the throws of ecstasy with such good taste and technique. Furthermore, the ability of Shunga to utilize certain aspects of Japanese culture to represent the lovemaking process makes it a fundamental step in the history of erotic art.