Kitagawa Utamaro - Buddhist monk having relations with the page of his temple - c.1803
Shunga is one of the six main subgenres of “pictures of the floating world” or, ukiyo-e (浮世絵). Beginning its development in the early 16th century, ukiyo-e, which included both painting and printed illustration design, was a unique genre of art that typically depicted the everyday life and culture of Japanese urban commoners.
“Shunga,” which translates as “spring pictures”, as spring represented a time of burgeoning romance, love, and consequently, sex between couples, was originally an abbreviation of “shunkyū higa”, (translated as “secret pictures of the spring palace”). This was the Japanese term for the Chinese tradition that necessitated the ruler sleep with twelve women (one for each month) to keep the cosmos in balance.
Suzuki Harunobu - Two men - c.1750
Unlike most traditional Japanese art, ukiyo-e, and by extension shunga, was the manifestation of urban popular culture and while ukiyo-e did not rely on any one established art school, its quality was always exceedingly high as it used the latest printing and design techniques and was created by some of the most talented hands of the day.
Ishikawa Toyonobu - Verandah - c.1730
Produced and sold by Japan’s printing/ publishing industry within a profit framework, shunga was heavily consumed by a continually growing urban population with the money, education, and time to spend on the pursuit of personal pleasure. To understand the fundamental purpose of shunga, we must consider the growth of a wealthy merchant class, the rise of literacy, the development of the publishing industry and ukiyo-e, and finally the creation of a unique urban culture cultivated within the pleasure and entertainment districts of major cities.
Pupil of the Utagawa school - Onnagata and older male - c.1800
It has only been in the years since 1989 that Japanese scholars have been able to openly research shunga, it is unfortunately still a somewhat sensitive topic in Japan, especially given that shunga was a very normalized aspect of Edo urban culture.
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