Kitagawa Utamaro - Buddhist monk having relations with the page of his temple - c.1803
Shunga is one of the six primary subgenres of "pictures of the floating world," known as ukiyo-e (浮世絵). Ukiyo-e, encompassing both painting and printed illustrations, emerged in the early 16th century as a distinctive art genre portraying the daily life and culture of Japanese urban commoners.
The term "Shunga," which translates to "spring pictures," derives its name from the association of spring with budding romance, love, and subsequently, sexual encounters between couples. Originally, it was a shortened form of "shunkyū higa," which can be translated as "secret pictures of the spring palace." This term referred to the Japanese practice influenced by Chinese tradition, where the ruler would be intimate with twelve women (one for each month) to maintain cosmic balance.
Suzuki Harunobu - Two men - c.1750
In contrast to most traditional Japanese art forms, ukiyo-e, and consequently shunga, represented the embodiment of urban popular culture. Unlike other art traditions, ukiyo-e did not adhere to a single established art school. However, its quality consistently reached remarkable heights because it leveraged the latest printing and design techniques and was crafted by some of the most talented artisans of its time.
Ishikawa Toyonobu - Verandah - c.1730
Shunga was created and distributed by Japan's printing and publishing industry within a profit-oriented framework. It found a substantial audience among a steadily expanding urban population that possessed the financial means, education, and leisure time to indulge in personal pleasure. To grasp the core intent of shunga, it's essential to examine the emergence of a prosperous merchant class, the increase in literacy rates, the evolution of the publishing sector alongside ukiyo-e, and the evolution of a distinctive urban culture fostered within the pleasure and entertainment districts of major cities.
Pupil of the Utagawa school - Onnagata and older male - c.1800
It was only after 1989 that Japanese scholars gained the ability to openly conduct research on shunga. Unfortunately, it remains a somewhat sensitive topic in Japan, even though shunga was a widely accepted and normalized aspect of Edo urban culture.
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