Shunga: Erotic Art from Japan

One of the foremost collections of erotic art from the floating world makes waves in Vienna.

Despite countless attempts by officials to prohibit and destroy erotic art during Japan’s Edo period, (1603-1867) the MAK’s exhibition of 4200 sheets by ukiyo-e artists remains a testament to the fact that sex sells. Far from serving pornographic purposes however, the interest in Shunga by Western audiences shows not only the desire to exhibit the historical relevance of this frequently-tabooed art form, but also its enduring fascination. A chronological narrative of panels, albums, books and woodcuts by renowned masters leads visitors through the aesthetic shifts and fashions of erotic art.

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© Estate of Martin Kippenberger/Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Shunga’s origins date back to the Heian period (794 to 1185), when scrolls depicted the scandals of the imperial court. Circulation skyrocketed with the arrival of cheaper woodblock printing in the 17th century: suddenly it wasn’t just the aristocratic few who could afford erotic content: peasants, merchants and samurai could also enjoy the promiscuous pleasures of titillated courtesans.

Although best known for his iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai also dabbled in erotic woodcuts. Blending mythology and ghosts with erotic fantasy, he added nipples, foreplay, exaggerated genitalia and even octopi to his works.

Likewise, Utamaro, known for his provocatively perverse drawings of highly explicit sexual escapades, has become one of the most sought-after Japanese artists of the period. Rarely seen on the market, the MAK offers an intriguing opportunity to see Utamaro’s work, including his most coveted series The Prelude to Desire in its rare entirety.

Alongside the exhibition’s impressive array of hitherto unseen sexual tableaux, decadent urban gentility and dream-like impossibility, Nobuyoshi Araki’s contemporary nude photographs featuring bondage and sexually suggestive flora and fauna, eliciting both controversy and intrigue, consummately connects the show to the present day.

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© Estate of Martin Kippenberger/Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Oct 12 – Jan 29, MAK  Now extended through Mar 5.

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Genevieve Doyle
Genevieve Doyle is writing for METROPOLE on her summer off from reading English Literature at The University of Cambridge. When she isn’t attending fairs to buy and source beautiful antiques and textiles, she likes painting murals and walking her very large Irish deerhound.

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