Category Archives: Shunga woodblock prints

ABACUS OF LOVE (Katsukawa Shuncho)

Important large format original shunga (春画) woodblock print, made around 1790 by the famous artist Katsukawa Shuncho (勝川春潮). A couple of lovers have a moment of pleasure next to the chobagoshi (帳場格子) counter, the place of the store used for accounting. Behind the couple, a soroban (算盤) abacus and a pile of accounting books.

The print belongs to an unidentified series, but represents at a very high level the more mature style of Shuncho, one of the most original authors of the late eighteenth century. The design is monumental and the technique used is that of benigirai (紅嫌い), which excluded the use of red pigments (the red of the wooden box visible on the right is actually the result of a fading of the original green) and which was adopted by the publishers following an antilux decree issued by the shogun (将軍).

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The shunga (春画) woodblock print “Octopus and Shell Diver” (蛸と海女), better known as “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, is taken from the third volume of Kinoe no Komatsu (喜能会之故真通), the most famous work in the corpus of erotic prints by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎), and depicts a woman abandoned in the ecstasy of an embrace with a pair of octopuses. This composition, which the scholar Francesco Morena defines, with an extremely effective synthesis, “engaging and shocking”, caused in the Western world a considerable stir.

In 1896 Edmond de Goncourt described it as “a frightful image”. In 1889, instead, Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote: «The most beautiful Japanese print I know is terrifying […]. The almost superhuman expression of anguish and pain which convulses the long Pierrot-like figure, with her aquiline nose, and the hysterical joy simultaneously conveyed by her forehead and her eyes closed as though in death, are admirable» (cf. Francesco Morena, Hokusai, 2007 Giunti Editore, pp. 57-58).

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KISERU (Suzuki Harunobu)

The faces of the women depicted by Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信) are often of an inexpressive sublimity: whether they are courtesans, city women or commoners, their features are full of charm that needs a frame that helps us to contextualize their role and to configure for them a personality that takes them away from the pure beauty of form and gives them back a part in the theater of human affairs.

The woman depicted in this woodblock print is a prostitute yujo (遊女) lying on a soft pile of three futon (蒲団). She holds a kiseru (煙管) pipe in her hand and is smoking, mischievously, on the face of her guest for the night. His right hand is already in her private parts, thus loading the elegant scene of an irresistible and impatient desire.

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KOMACHI-BIKI (Kitagawa Utamaro)

The series of prints Komachi-biki (小町引き), from which is taken this important shunga (春画) woodblock print by the artist Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿), has been defined “one of the highest results of the whole ukiyo-e history” (Günther Giovannoni). The title of the series, literally “Tugging Komachi”, was chosen by Utamaro with the intention of citing a popular painting of the same name in which Ono no Komachi (小野小町), the famous Japanese poet active in the early Heian period (平安時代) and famous for her incredible beauty (so much that her name is still used today to indicate women of particular attractiveness), was pulled away by a lover.

In the work we see a couple of lovers in front of a byobu screen (屏風) decorated with a Chinese landscape. Between the two there is a very explicit conversation in which, among other things, he expresses the desire that his body end up being really swallowed by his partner (いっそ体までのまれて志まいたい) which, in turn, reassures him by saying the same words: “I will end up swallowing your whole body” (からだまでのんでしまふによ).

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ABUNA-E (Kikukawa Eizan)

Refined woodblock print of the 1920s, reproduction of a work made around 1810 by Kikukawa Eizan (菊川英山), the most prolific, longest-lived and ultimately the best of the late followers of Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿), who attempted to carry on the style of the famous ukiyo-e (浮世絵) artist after the death of the latter, occurred in 1806.

The print presented here is not a “shunga” (春画) picture in the strict sense, but an “abuna-e” (あぶな絵), literally a “dangerous image”, which has no nudity but maintains an extremely explicit and suggestive erotic charge.

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PAIR OF LOVERS (Isoda Koryusai)

Precious woodblock print of the 1920s, reproduction of a work made around 1770 by Isoda Koryusai (礒田湖龍斎), the famous artist coming from a family of samurai who, after becoming a ronin (浪人) following the death of his lord, renounced his lineage and moved to Edo (江戸) to devote himself entirely to ukiyo-e (浮世絵).

The print presented here belongs to the first artistic phase of Koryusai, in which the influence of Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信) is still present in the style of faces and figures. The change in the style of Koryusai will occur later, around 1775, with the most monumental series “Twelve Bouts in the Way of Love” (色道取組十二番).

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