The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

An Exhibition of Japanese Erotic Art at the MAK in Vienna (12.10.2016 – 29.01.2017): “Vile Pictures in the Best Style”

In 1859, on a visit to Japan, the American businessman Francis Hall was shown erotic Japanese prints, known as shunga. His reaction sums up the mainstream European attitude to shunga at the time and later. Hall called the prints, “vile pictures in the best Japanese style.”

Shunga on painted handscroll, British Museum

While art historians and art lovers would enthusiastically acknowledge the beauty and high quality of much of the shunga, the graphic depictions of sexual scenes made it impossible to even organize a large-scale exhibition of shunga art for a long time. In this sense, the British Museum’s show “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art” in 2013, followed by several exhibitions in 2015 in Japan and the U.S. opened the way for exhibiting Japanese erotic art.

The current show at the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna comes in the wake of this new, popular interest in shunga. It comes as no surprise, though, that the poster finds it necessary to mention that: “The exhibition contains explicit erotic depictions that might be offensive to the moral sensibility of persons under 16 years of age.”

The majority of the works at the MAK come from the collection of the remarkable Austrian art collector Rudolf Leopold (1925-2010), known for his major collection of modern art, which was bought by the Austrian state to form the Leopold Museum in Vienna (opened in 2011). The son of Rudolf Leopold, Diethard Leopold, is the Guest Curator of the current show. Rudolf Leopold’s art interests are relevant to understanding the MAK exhibition. He was one of the earliest collectors of Egon Schiele, at a time when Schiele was out of fashion, as well as of Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. In other words, Leopold was instrumental in popularizing the Austrian avant-garde, who were strongly influenced by Japanese art, just like their colleagues in France and elsewhere in Europe. Interestingly, the term “art nouveau” coined in Paris in the 1860s originally referred to art coming from Japan. In this sense, for anyone passionately invested in the avant-garde, as Leopold was, it was natural to develop an interest in Japanese art.

The MAK show focuses on one, large trend of Japanese art, i.e. erotic painting known as shunga, which saw its heyday in the Edo period (1603-1867), but goes much further back in time. Shunga means literally “spring picture,” whereby “spring” is a metaphor for “sex.” As an art form, it belongs to the genre of ukiyo-e pictures, i.e., “pictures of the floating world,” and it displays the same qualities of dream-like fantasy and idealization. That is something to keep in mind when looking at the exquisitely beautiful drawings of sexual scenes – they represent fantasies of an idealized world in which pleasure and sexual desire reign supreme. This idea comes across most obviously, for example, in the huge, exaggerated size of men’s sexual organs. In one drawing, there are two small, acrobatic figures playing on the extended phallus. The sense of fantasy also shows through in some of the texts that almost invariably accompany the images and which frequently speak of almost impossible sexual prowess. Another feature that these images – most of them in the medium of woodcut print – share is that there are almost no nude figures. The participants in the sexual scenes are usually fully clothed. Having in mind the explicit sexual character of the depictions, this was certainly not out of a sense of modesty. More likely, it shows the different attitude to nudity of a culture in which men and women were much more used to it. In fact, if anything, covering the rest of the body in the prints focuses attention even more on the sexual organs.

Finally, while this is not an exhibition that one should take one’s children to, it is very much worth seeing. It is interesting as a glimpse into Japanese culture with its standards of female beauty and human sexuality. More importantly, the show brings together high-quality works by some of the most celebrated Japanese artists such as Suzuki Haronobu (1725-1770), Katsushika Hokusai (c.1760-1849), and Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753-1806). The refined beauty of the images is truly breath-taking.

Select bibliography:
- Bru i Turull, R. and Ran, A., Erotic Japonisme: The Influence of Japanese Sexual Imagery on Western Art, (Leiden, 2014).
- Clark, T et al., (eds.), Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, (London: British Museum Publications, 2013).
- Illing, R., Japanese Erotic Art and the Life of the Courtesan, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).
- Screech, T., Sex and the Floating World, (London: Reaktion Books, 1999).

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