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The F. Bertholet Collection (Lots 420-478)
In the following section you will find a small but very select group of Japanese erotic prints, a genre that is generally known under the innocent heading shunga, literally 'Spring pictures'.
From the very beginning of Japanese printmaking erotic art developed alongside the more common subjects of prints of courtesans, actors, warriors and landscapes. The genre was suppressed by governmental censorship measures, but that did not withhold almost all major print artists from c. 1680 to 1900 to design significant number of highly erotic images. Because of censorship, installed to guard over morals in Japanese society, the majority of shunga are unsigned. Sometimes pseudonyms were used or hidden references in the texts give us clues to the identity of their creators, but more often stylistic elements help us identify the artists.
Many shunga were produced in series, often consisting of twelve designs. The series were sometimes sold in albums, accompanied by a brief introduction. This explains why so many, especially oban sized prints (25 x 38 cm) survive with a centerfold.
Shunga fulfilled various roles, one being the one of the stimulant, as pornography. The second is to produce laughter and merriment (another term used for shunga is warai-e, 'Laughter pictures'). Some of the fun is not just in the image but also in the 'clouds' of text, which often express very basic and erotic conversation, including moaning, yawning, sighing and expressions of exasperation.
The prints on offer here constitute examples of some of the finest shunga from the best periods by the best artists. The Amsterdam collector of Chinese and Japanese erotica Ferry Bertholet has selected prints by Harunobu and Koryusai, the two most important artists in the genre following the introduction of multicolour printing in 1765. From the 1780s prints by the artist Shuncho show us why he is considered a true specialist of the genre. Kiyonaga's Sleeve Scroll is the most daring example of shunga design ever: he uses the difficult pillar print format, forcing him to a compositional tour de force, employing the format horizontally, a feat never to be repeated.
The famous Utamaro is represented by examples of his second most important series Negai no itoguchi (Prelude to desire). The enigmatic Hokusai, creator of the Mount Fuji is represented by a fine example of the comic dimension added to the sexual emotion of the print. The selection is concluded by several examples of the work of Shigenobu, whose prints represent something of the raw and aggressive power that is sometimes found in Japanese eroticism.
The collector Bertholet has always demonstrated a keen eye for aspects of condition. The majority of the prints are in an excellent state of conservation, with some of the very fugitive pigments from more than 200 years ago, still present to give enjoyment to collectors of shunga in the 21st century.
Illustrated in Kobayashi and Asano, Tokyo, 1995, Ukiyo-e soroimono (Pillow Pictures: Ukiyo-e Series), vol. 1, p. 25 and in Uhlenbeck and Winkel, Leiden, 2005, Japanese Erotic Fantasies. Sexual Imagery of the Edo period, pl. 18 (this impression).