In praise of shadows – Senju recreating classic shunga.
Lately, I have been experiencing a yearning for a return to where my erotic art once began. Over time, I have developed a personal style of painting that, even though it is still highly influenced by Japanese art and culture, bears little resemblance to the classic shunga prints that first kindled my artistic flame. I have decided to begin work on a new series of paintings in which I pay tribute to the genre I owe so much of my aesthetic foundation.
Through reworking classic pieces of erotic art by my favourite Ukiyo-e artists, I hope to learn new skills and gain a deeper understanding, and hopefully, add my work to the ongoing and ever-evolving tradition of Japanese art. Before I present my new series to you more in-depth, it is perhaps a good idea to quickly discuss the background of this unique genre of erotic art.
Japanese erotic art called Shunga (spring pictures) is synonymous with Ukiyo-e. This art form, mainly expressed in woodblock prints, was a revolutionary new genre that emerged in the Edo period (1603-1868). Aimed towards the inhabitants of Japan’s capital Edo ( now Tokyo), Ukiyo-e portrayed Kabuki actors, warriors, landscapes and beautiful women. Mass-production of woodblock prints using a refined yet complex technique ensured low prices for the consumers, and collecting them soon became a fad. The popularity of Ukiyo-e remained strong up to the late 1800s when photography replaced woodblock prints.
In the early 1700s, Edo had grown from a small fishing village into a metropolis. Roughly one million people called Edo home, and it was already then one of the largest cities in the world, with a large part of the population consisting of men. Artisans, craftsmen and labourers had been flocking to Edo from all corners of Japan to build the Tokugawa shoguns new capital. There were roughly five men to every woman, and most of the women in Edo at that time belonged to the samurai class. They were not eligible to fraternise with working men, so a need and subsequent market rose for woodblock-printed illustrated erotic books.
Shunga sprang out of a tradition of painted handscrolls depicting erotic scenes. These lavish scrolls had been available to wealthy men who commissioned them from artists to use for their sexual gratification. However, the cheap printing technique afforded by woodblock printing now made this treasured material available to working men (and women) at a price everyone could afford.
Painted Shunga e-maki (picture scrolls)
Shunga books, as well as single prints, quickly became sought after, and the market soared. No Ukiyo-e publishing house worth the name could afford to stay out of the highly lucrative market of pornography. The same went for the skilled artists designing the prints. Praised and acclaimed artists like Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Kitagawa Utamaro were prolific creators of explicit erotic material.
Shunga e-hon (picture books)
The title of my new series of shunga paintings is “In Praise of Shadows (In’ei Raisan)”. The title refers to the fantastic essay by the same name by Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. Tanizaki’s text, published in 1933, reminisces and talks about an old Japan lost in the frenzy of modernising.
Among other things, he speaks beautifully and, in a poetic voice, about the days of paper lanterns and candlelight. He vividly describes how the gold leaf on folding screens reflects the naked flame, absorbing the light and then softly disperses it around the room. How the rich tones of traditional red and black in Japanese lacquerware come alive in dimly lit restaurants and how the soft, insufficient light leaves the corners mysterious and dark. It is a Japan before the brutality of electric light. A culture of dusk and imagination.
When I light a candle in my small cosy studio, I can see what Tanizaki was trying to say. I have made sure to surround myself with objects that feed my imagination. Noh masks, Obi (kimono sashes) with rich gold embroidery, small folding screens, traditional Kyoto fans used in dances and even a hand made miniature samurai armour make sure I feel at home when creating. I have collected these over the past 20 years, and even if my tiny studio goes through many transformations each year, these objects remain. In the light of my electric lamp, they are simply beautiful, interesting objects, but in candlelight, they become portals into a suggestive and fantastical world!
“One recent morning, I woke up and asked myself: how would these scenes look if I tried to recreate the old Japan Tanizaki described in his essay. “
Almost all shunga prints look like their subject matter are making love in harsh daylight. In reality, a vast majority of the scenes takes place at night. This is because Ukiyo-e art depends on the expressiveness of the line rather than a description of light and shadows. Exceptions to the rule can be found, as in some of the works of Hokusai’s daughter, Oi, but they are rare.
Painting showing Yoshiwara by Katsushika Oi
Print no.10 (of 12) from “Utamakura” by Kitagawa Utamaro.
In late December 2021, I began to understand how to do it. While I was working on another art project, I had accidentally stumbled on technique simply enough to not interfere with the expression of the line. All I had to try it out, experiment and then refine it.
I began with a favourite shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro. As is common in shunga, this piece does not have a title. It’s one out of twelve prints featured in the book “Utamakura (poem(s) of the pillow)”, and is perhaps Utamaro’s most sensitive shunga. The image portrays a couple in a rather sensual yet explicit scene set in a second-story room of a teahouse. She is a meshimorion’na (a maidservant that also works as a prostitute). This is written on the folding fan, along with a poem by Ishikawa Masamochi that reads:
Hashi o shikka to
Aki no yugure
Its beak caught firmly
In the clamshell
the snipe cannot
Of an autumn evening
The true nature of the relationship between the man and the woman portrayed is hard to figure out. This is a task I will leave to your imagination.
“In Praise of Shadows I (after Utamaro” by Senju.
I tried to create a work as faithful to the original as possible. My hand is evident in the linework, also the choice of colours for the woman’s kimono and obi. The paper lantern is not part of Utamaro’s original design, but I will continue to take liberties such as this when continuing this series.
It is my hope to be forgiven by the artist, you and history for such creative necessities.
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