Helsinki City Art Museum will stage an exhibition of a unique collection of Japanese erotic art from the Edo period (1603–1867). In fact, alongside their better-known work, almost all the old masters produced such candid portrayals of the many forms of sexuality. They include Hokusai, Utamaro and Kunisada, who are featured in the exhibition. These images form an important element of Japan’s art and cultural history, though they have been repressed and censored in Japan to the present day. The collection displayed in the exhibition includes paintings, woodblock prints and illustrated books.
In Japan, these candidly sexual images are known as shunga or spring pictures. They are part the ukiyo-e genre of art that emerged in Edo-period Japan. The term ukiyo-e means ‘pictures of the floating world’ or ‘pictures of the world of pleasures’. The genre flourished particularly in Edo (modern Tokyo). Although the theatre and houses of pleasure were common motifs in ukiyo-e, the majority of the genre’s erotic or shunga images portray ordinary people: married couples of all ages, shy and inexperienced youngsters, adulterous wives and husbands, liaisons across class boundaries, and same-sex lovers.
Japan has a strong tradition of erotica and its people have held various associated beliefs. In the Japanese middle ages, the samurai believed that sex would safeguard them against misfortune. It was widely believed in the Edo period that placing a shunga in a building would provide protection against fire and as late as the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) soldiers carried erotic books with them as good-luck charms.
Shunga is life-affirming and tolerant. It is also essentially humorous. This is true especially of the witty and comical texts and dialogues between couples that often accompanied the images. The erotic pictures and book illustrations were enjoyed by all ranks of society and the advances made in the woodblock printing technique, which reached its pinnacle in the 18th century, made it possible to mass-produce them at low cost.
Although the general attitude towards shunga was open and positive in the Edo period, the genre was subject to censorship at times. It was not until the late 19th century that the introduction of Western ideals and morals to the formerly closed society of Japan brought radical change. The immensely popular shunga suddenly became forbidden images and were hidden away in attics and closets.
The curators of the exhibition are the esteemed shunga scholar, Professor Monta Hayakawa (International Research Center for Japanese Studies), and the journalist Yoshihiko Shirakura. The exhibition is a collaborative effort between the Helsinki City Art Museum and the Transform Corporation in Tokyo. The works are on loan from Japanese private and public collections. Some of the works will be replaced by others a week before Christmas so that there will be two distinct collections on display (the first from November 20 to December 18, 2002 and the second from December 22, 2002 to January 26, 2003). A series of prints, woodblocks and tools illustrating the technique of woodblock printing will also be displayed. They are on loan from the Department of Graphic Design of the University of Art and Design Helsinki.
The principal sponsor of the exhibition is the Anna magazine.
A catalogue with numerous illustrations and English-language texts will be published in connection with the exhibition. The catalogue’s layout is by Maria Appelberg. The architect of the exhibition is Severi Blomstedt.
Further Information: Curator Sointu Fritze, tel +358-9-310 87022, +358-50-374 7644 / Exhibition Secretary Saara Suojoki, tel +358-9-310 87018, +358-50-529 1346 / Educational Curator Arja Miller, tel +358-9-310 87007, +358-50-336 1980
Press Material: Press Secretary Karri Buchert, tel +358-9-310 87004, +358-50-304 6707.
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