The Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga

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    Kangetsu Shitomi (1747-1797). 'The Kangetsu Handscroll (Kangetsu zukan) (detail), Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), late 18th century. Handscroll; ink, color and gold leaf on paper. Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003 (2008.0685)

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    Sugimura Jihei (active c. 1681-1703) Three Lovers Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), mid 1680, Woodblock print; ink on paper with hand-coloring, Gift of James A. Michener, 1972  (16270)

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    Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770) Flowers (Hana) From the series Snow, Moon, Flowers (Setsugetsuka) Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), c. 1770, Woodblock print; ink and color on paper, Gift of James A. Michener, 1991 (24673)

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    Hishikawa Moronobu (1631-1694) Lovers in Boudoir Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), c. 1682, Woodblock print; ink on paper, Gift of James A. Michener, 1991  (21638) 

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November 23, 2012 - March 17, 2013
Gallery 14

Exhibition Overview

See the exhibition online.

Sex. Mere mention of the topic provokes within us intensely diverse emotional reactions, yet few subjects are as universally understood and as instrumental in forming our identities as adult human beings. Sexuality has been a consistent topic throughout the history of visual art in various cultures. Japanese artists of the Edo period (1615-1868), including the most revered designers of ukiyo-e prints, were involved in the production of erotica known as shunga (literally “spring pictures”) as well as more restrained depictions of sexuality. Exploring the genre of shunga offers us a much richer understanding of ukiyo-e printmaking as well as the general attitudes about sexuality and gender that were prevalent in Edo society.

The Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection includes more than 800 works of shunga that have never before been publicly displayed. These works originate from the collections of Richard D. Lane and James A. Michener. Lane, a pioneering scholar in the field of shunga, rehabilitated the genre’s public image through years of tireless advocacy, and he eventually convinced the Japanese government to allow its uncensored reproduction. Michener held a far more skeptical view of shunga’s overall art historical importance, but ironically, the erotic works that he contributed are arguably among the finest examples in the entire genre. 

This first exhibition, featuring more than 90 woodblock prints, woodblock-printed books, and paintings, will focus on the early development of shunga as a genre during the 17th and 18th centuries. Overarching themes that the exhibition explores include the role of erotica in the nationwide discourse on sexuality, concepts of gender as reflected in erotica, and the depiction of the commercial sex industry in shunga and other Japanese art genres. The exhibition promises a startlingly bold reconsideration of many beloved works in the Honolulu Museum of Art’s permanent collection, and it guarantees to challenge the viewers’ assumptions and attitudes about sexuality and gender.

The second exhibition in this series, scheduled for November 2013, will discuss the topic of humor in shunga. In November 2014, the series will culminate with a presentation of erotic works from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Honolulu Museum of Art would like to express its gratitude to the Robert F. Lange Foundation for its ongoing support of the museum’s continuing efforts to catalogue its extensive collection of Japanese art, including the works that are in this exhibition.

The exhibition series Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga is co-curated by Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art, and Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Research Associate for Japanese Art.