Home page

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
Torii Kiyonobu I (ca. 1664-1729)
Torii Kiyonobu I (ca. 1664-1729)

A Suite of Male Lovers, 1702-3

Details
Torii Kiyonobu I (ca. 1664-1729)
A Suite of Male Lovers, 1702-3
Sumizuri-e, twelve album sheets depicting erotic encounters between male lovers in interior settings; signed on plate 1 Torii Kiyonobu above a square decorative seal; publisher's name and address on plate 12 Hasegawa-cho Honya Saburobei (Honya Saburobei of Hasegawa-cho)--very good impressions, centerfolds, soiled, creased, repairs
aiban yoko-e: 22.5 x 30.8cm., each approx.
The rectangular red seals on plates 1 and 12 are illegible. The large circular seal on the same plates may be that of a collector or of a rental bookshop.

Christie's is indebted to Asano Shugo for his identification of the lovers and dating of the set.

The actors or young dandies (wakashu) in the plates have been identified as follows:
1. Iwai Sagenta
2. Sawamura Kodenji
3. Uemura Kichisaburo
4. Ikushima Daikichi
5. Dekishima Kozarashi
6. Ichikawa Danzo (wakashu)
7. Utamura Jujiro or Shinomiya Heihachi (wakashu)
8. Tsugawa Handayu
9. Tamamura Emon
10. Nakamura Hanzaburo (wakashu)
11. Hayakawa Hatsuse or Ogio Sawanojo
12. Matsumoto Kantaro (12)

Lot Essay

This set of male lovers is a sensational new discovery from a master of Japanese erotica. This is the only known Kiyonobu album devoted to men. Unique about the twelve scenes is that they are intimate and emotional portraits of real people. In the demure opening image the lovers embrace. In the fifth scene one treats the other to a toe nibble; in the eighth they kiss. Of the mere handful of male-male erotica known or even discussed, the prevailing picture is of an older partner deriving satisfaction from a younger, submissive one. Here everyone is sharing the fun.

One of each of the couples is a grown-up, albeit young, gay blade or kabuki performer who can be identified by the crest on his clothing. The square of silk covering the shaved forelock of the actors indicates that he is a performer of female roles called an onnagata. Everyone found them irresistible. Female fans adopted their latest powder or style of dress. Men admired their supercharged femininity on stage and off. Many onnagata even lived as women as we are invited to believe of the beauties here.

By the time Kiyonobu produced this album, Edo (modern Tokyo) was the largest city in the world with nearly a million inhabitants. Two thirds of the residents were male. Most of these were the retainers of daimyo required by the shogun to leave their fiefdoms and families to reside in Edo for alternate years. This system was construed as a way to keep the provinces from threatening the peacetime hard won after decades of civil war. While the 200-plus daimyo each kept around 100 female attendants segregated in their Edo residences, their hundreds of retainers were confined to barracks.

The two great fantasy fonts of Edo Japan were the worlds of the courtesan and actor. Although the government regarded both as outcasts and regulated their activities, the veneers of the stars of both worlds were universal preoccupations. Courtesan critiques listed the attributes and faults of notables in the pleasure quarters. Kiyonobu himself brought out both a courtesan book and an acclaimed actor book, Screens in All Directions (Shiho byobu), around 1700. In a society where status and opportunity were determined by birth, a yearning for other circumstances and experiences was a natural consequence. For the majority the expense of entrée to the demimonde was prohibitive. Illustrated and narrative erotica stood in for the real thing.

Sex to Kiyonobu's audience was entertainment. Marriages were arranged at puberty. Love matches were more likely to end up as the next double-suicide immortalized on stage. For anyone with an imagination, a dalliance with another partner was a lucky event and it was not unusual for men to sleep with both men and women. This is not to say that the city of Edo was a literal hot bed. The government instituted a series of reforms meant to keep society in check and maintained careful watch on the courtesan and kabuki worlds and the artists and writers who kept them famous. Given these strictures, the lack of personal privacy and very limited access to the costly pleasures on offer, erotica, especially in the form of prints and books as opposed to commissioned paintings, was another form of vicarious amusement no more or less intense than the idealization of a kabuki star.

All Japanese artists of note designed erotica. Kiyonobu is believed to have produced around 100 erotic prints to be sold in sets of eight to twelve, as here. He had a personal and professional attachment to the theater, earning a steady living as a designer of kabuki signboards and illustrated playbooks. His father, Torii Kiyotomo, is said to have been an actor of female roles in Osaka who moved to Edo with his family in 1687. Through this connection Kiyonobu profited from his familiarity with the all-male theater world, in particular from his friendship with the actor Ichikawa Danjuro I who originated the aragoto, or "rough stuff," performance of male roles that was the rave in Edo. The characters here are performers Kiyonobu knew and depicted in his other prints.

Most youths in male-male erotic pictures or stories of the period are in feminized or female costume and hairdo, the forehead unshaven. The "female" role mirrors the encounters so famously depicted in male-female Japanese erotica where the woman is subservient to the puissance of the man, with oversized genitals to prove it. In male-male imagery genitalia are more discretely proportioned or unseen and most of the attention is directed to the dewy appeal of the youth through the details of his attire. In this set the action is less sexual than romantic and the disparity between the ages of the partners less certain.

The design of the scenes is as bold as what the players are doing. In plate 7 the monk's robe is thrown in a giant pleated knot in the background. By coloring it black, Kiyonobu silhouettes the straining man; the rather bemused recipient propped up on her elbows forms a pretty bow, a rounded diminutive of the big black knot. By arranging the embracing lovers of plate 1 in a triangle we focus on their tender faces; the intersection of the verandah, screen and alcove frame the figures and draw us into the room so we notice the small incense burner playfully mounted on an ornamental branch of coral. Erotic pictures are replete with double-entendres such as the strategically placed chrysanthemum, a symbol for the anus, in plate 9. In plate 4 the atmosphere is gentle, enhanced by the arch of padded bedding, curving rumps and sleeves ending in a flirtatious flip. Despite the obvious elements presented in plates 9, 10 and 12 this set is about suggestion. It is private theater where the players beckon the viewer to direct the scenes in infinite variations.

More from Japanese and Korean Art

View All
View All