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The exquisitely vibrant and uninhibited erotic works produced by the master printers of Japan were concealed from the world for most of their history. Through a combination of historical circumstance and the calculated efforts of censors, these small-scale, sexually explicit woodcut prints, known as shunga, were unobtainable in the west. By contrast, shunga were widely circulated in pre-modern Japan, and the prints achieved enormous popularity despite the rigid social regulations enforced by the shogunal regime. The harmonious rule secured by the military shoguns enabled the creation of new urban populations and a leisured bourgeoise. The Japanese capital, Edo (now Tokyo), quickly emerged as the world's largest city, and no indulgence or pleasure was unavailable within its precincts. Shunga translates as 'spring pictures', 'spring' being a euphemism for sex used in connection with brothel districts such as the Yoshiwara, an exclusive, gated enclave where newly rich Edoites could engage in entertainments that allowed normal values and social obligations to be forgotten. The ebullient and unashamedly hedonistic orientation of shunga represent the values of an upwardly mobile mercantile class during a period which would culminate in the demise of shogunal rule.
The emblematic status of the courtesan in Edo period culture can be directly attributed to the beauty and refinement of contemporary woodcut prints. Experimentation with presentation and subject matter was demanded by shifts in the art market arising from demographic change, making shunga visually striking in terms of technique, colour, and composition. Prints suited the needs of mercantile purchasers unwilling to undertake the commitments of patronage, allowing woodcuts to emerge as the premier cultural product of Edo. It is from the ranks of print designers that our cannon of Edo period masters is drawn, and examples of shunga production can be found amongst the oeuvres of almost all major print artists. Over the course of their history, shunga became increasingly technically accomplished, reaching their fullest potential with the development of colour printing by Suzuki Harunobu in 1765. Collectively, shunga prints form an extremely diverse and aesthetically superlative populist erotic tradition that remains unrivaled in the history of art.
Shogunal foreign policy placed strict controls on overseas trade, preventing shunga from circulating outside Japan for the entirety of the Edo period (1603-1858). With the collapse of the shogunal regime in the 1860s Japanese art became newly available to western viewers, allowing Japanese woodcut prints to exert a decisive influence on the development of European modernism. Edmond de Goncourt's book on Kitagawa Utamaro (pub. 1891) communicates the enthusiasm and wonder with which Japanese prints were received by Parisian artistic circles. This work was not only one of the earliest texts on Japanese art to be published in Europe, but was also the first monograph on a Japanese artist to be published anywhere in the world. Utamaro's artistic production was highly specialised; his insatiable interest in the courtesans of the Yoshiwara led contemporaries to quip that he must have been born within its confines. The position of his oeuvre within the historiography of Japanese art gives shunga prints particular importance, making them integral to the history of Japanese art and its reception in the western world.
Majella Munro, School of Oriental and African Studies.
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