‘Spring pictures’, shunga, or Erotic Art from Japan in MAK Vienna

MAK Exhibition View, 2016, SHUNGA. Erotic Art from Japan. MAK Design Lab. Photo: © MAK/Georg MayerThe Museum presents individual sheets, albums, and books by renowned masters such as Suzuki Harunobu, Hokusai, Utamaro and contemporary nude photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki.

VIENNA. With its apparently carefree attitude to nakedness and sexuality East Asian shunga („spring pictures”) convey a much freer attitude to sexual morals than has been instilled in us in Europe. The MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art (Stubenring 5, 1010 Vienna) – exhibition SHUNGA: Erotic Art from Japan (until 5 March 2017) focuses on the artistic quality of the explicitly erotic color woodblock prints, which despite long prohibition by the Japanese government advanced to become a mass phenomenon. Individual sheets, albums, and books by renowned masters such as Suzuki Harunobu (ca. 1725-1770), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) - mostly loans from the Leopold private collectionoffer a representative and in-depth view in the MAK of this frequently tabooed facet of Japanese art history. Contemporary nude photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940) act as a connecting link to the present day, announced mak.at.

Hashiguchi Goyō (1880–1921), ‘Yokugo no onna’ (Woman after her Bath), 1918-1920. From a portfolio with 13 color woodblock prints on the theme of ‘Bathers’. © Leopold Private Foundation, Vienna. Photo: MAK/Georg MayerWith around 4 200 sheets, the MAK collection of Japanese color woodcut prints is one of the foremost ukiyo-e collections in Europe. Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), to which the shunga may be classified, illustrate urban entertainments and bourgeois everyday phenomena associated with the theatre and pleasure quarters of Edo, now Tokyo. For a long time the explicit depiction of sexuality in the shunga

blocked access for the erotic prints into European collections.

This applies as well to the MAK collection, which houses solely one picture scroll by an anonymous master from the second half of the seventeenth centurythe earliest item shown in the MAK collection.

The aesthetic treatment of naked bodies and the in part complex arrangements of kimono folds and drapery clearly distinguish shunga from naturalistic renderings of love play. They are characterized by their anatomical precision, sometimes extreme bodily positions, and over-dimensional genitals. Shunga frequently show humorous scenes as well, such as a little girl who eavesdrops on a pair of lovers and calls: I’m going to tell Mummy!

The chronologically structured exhibition in the MAK Design Lab starts off with early shunga series from the seventeenth century, which keep to the twelve-month cycle and – with a title sheet – constitute thirteen related prints. Suzuki Harunobu, one of the foremost shunga artists, elaborated the initially black-and-white woodcuts into polychrome prints; his parables between Chinese poetry and Japanese eroticism appealed especially to the rich and educated middle class in Edo.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806), ‘A Young Visitor’ (1799). From the album ‘Negai no itoguchi’ (Awakening of Desire). Color woodblock print. © Leopold Private Foundation, Vienna. Photo: MAK/Georg MayerNearly all well-known ukiyo-e artists
also designed erotic color woodcut prints,

accounting for the artistic quality of shunga. Kitagawa Utamaro transformed Harunobu’s originally dream-like erotic scenes into more explicit portrayals. He makes them more matter-of-fact and also shows semi-erotic domestic scenes like the Beauty (bijin) at her toilette. Utamaro’s albums – today extremely scarce on the art market – are among the most sought-after works of Japanese art. His series Negai no itoguchi (The Prelude to Desire; 1799) can be seen in its entirety in the MAK.

Katsushika Hokusai – famous not only for his series 36 Views of Mount Fuji – blends erotic fantasies with the world of mythology and ghosts. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) the quality of the shunga tended to vary. The beautiful woman (bijin) is no longer the central subject, they focus far more on erotic motifs like the young student or the self-assertive woman. The new technical potential offered by photography since the last quarter of the nineteenth century caused the color woodcut print to lose much of its significance as a mass medium. The artist Hashigu-chi Goyo (1880-1921) was one of the first to revive the ukiyo-e in new prints (shin hanga), creating a modern, self-confident image of women reminiscent of Utamaro’s sheets.

The MAK exhibition closes with selected photographs by the Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki, who has produced several nude photography series alluding to shunga from the Edo period.

Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865, attributed), Eavesdropped Lovers, ca. 1830/40. Color woodblock print. © Leopold Private Foundation, Vienna. Photo: MAK/Georg MayerThe major part of the works shown

in SHUNGA: Erotic Art from Japan comes from Rudolf Leopold’s (1925-2010) superlative ukiyo-e collection, now owned by his son Diethard Leopold, who continually enlarges the collection. The depiction of sex without taboos in the color woodcut prints made a great impression in Europe and was first methodically interpreted in similarly direct form by Egon Schiele (1890-1918) in whole series of sheets. The woodcuts are a constitutive part of the Rudolf Leopold Collection; the art patron compiled an all-embracing retrospective dealing with Vienna around 1900 with Schiele as its nucleus. A part of the comprehensive shunga collection was on show in the exhibition Japan – Fragility of Existence in the Leopold Museum in 2012/2013. While shunga was probably deemed to be pornography at the start, today the focus is on its art-historical significance. Erotic color woodcut prints have hitherto hardly played a part on the exhibition scene, since the borderline between erotic art and pornography is frequently blurred. The British Museum was a forerunner in showcasing them in Europe with the large-scale exhibition Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art in 2013. In Japan itself the first major shunga exhibition followed in 2015 in the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog of the same name, published by the MAK, with texts by Susanne Klien, Diethard Leopold, and Sepp Linhart, approx. 200 pages, 80 illustrations. Available at the MAK Design Shop.

Warning! This exhibition contains explicitly erotic depictions which might offend the moral sensibility of persons under sixteen years of age.

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Guest Curator: Diethard Leopold
Curator: Johannes Wieninger, Curator, MAK Asia Collection
Academic Consultation: Sepp Linhart

Opening Hours: Tue 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.,
                             Wed – Sun 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Free admission on Tuesdays from 6 – 10 p.m.

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