Japan has an ambivalent relationship with sexuality in visual form, which unfortunately includes its own estimable tradition of erotic art, or shunga (literally “spring pictures”). Though these works have long been banned from exhibition within Japan, that may be coming to an end with the nation’s first major exhibition of shunga later this year at the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo.
Shunga, or “pictures of spring,” as rings the metaphor in Japanese, is a subtle monicker for some of the least subtle erotic art on record. While most Japanese erotic art depicts men getting it on with women, a great deal shows gay love. Homosexual shunga, of course, are not always explicit. Social scenes show us everyday life, where homosexual love is only hinted at, and much is left to the imagination.
Next on the ladder of gay love are images of courtship, through which we see the rich display of emotions of men in love, or out of it: desire, lust, fear, tenderness, surprise, humor. Homosexual passion is not far behind. Japanese homoerotic art is replete with kissing and fondling between horny samurai and their apprentices, or even more often, kabuki actor youths moonlighting as gay prostitutes.
Perhaps most alien for western lovers of the erotic is the sheer exuberance of Japanese homoerotic art and the humor with which the rough gay sex or tenderlove making of shunga are depicted. Nothing is held back, on the contrary, everything is exaggerated and veils, sheets and kimonos are pulled aside so we can have a clear view of what gay men (or “gay for pay” men) do in bed to together. In a rare (for premodern homosexual sex) parallel with modern gay love, anal sex is high on the agenda.
The third person is the whole charm of sex in Ménage à trois, showing that voyeurism and group sex are anything but recent inventions. Indeed, the pattern of introducing a third person, usually a curious observer, often a child, is a recurrent theme in homoerotic art, and one that can be traced all the way to Greek and Roman antiquity. Though homosexual love abounds, the ménage à trois erotica in this collection shows both men and women being penetrated, as these Japanese threesomes experiment with various positions.
Scroll art is a particularly Eastern form of erotic art, ranging from cheap prints to elegant paintings executed with exotic and precious colors on fine silk. Ishikawa Toyonobu’s shunga book of gay love between men and their boy-friends is an example of a “mass-market” production, showing male actor prostitutes engaging in vigorous seduction and passionate, if not downright crude and explicit gay sex.Miyagawa Isshô’s painted silk scroll is a subtle, thoughtful work intended for a refined and wealthy buyer. The individual vignettes explore tender allusions to desire, implied seduction, foreplay, less-than-explicit sex and the inevitable disillusionment that follows a passionate tryst.