Japan: Art, Eroticism, and Religion
Although Japan’s artistic reputation is mostly concerned with porcelain-wares and decorative fabrics, by 1974, a strange treasure had appeared in the secret recesses of the British Museum. Though initially staff would’ve told an inquiring visitor that there was no such thing, there in fact lies an 18th-century woodblock painting of a woman who is bent over, holding her weight on her forearms, and making love with the man behind her. The pair is mostly clothed, except for the regions necessary for depicting the act, and a short poem penned above them indicates the season. What exactly is going on here? Well, let’s not stand perplexed for too long, and instead step back for the sake of the larger picture.
Many cultures have expressed primordial oneness as hermaphroditic; others, erotic. The Chinese yin-yang represents the duality of the universe as much as it does the human sexes. The “supreme” Hindu Shiva is often seen tightly clasping Shakti, his female half, expressing primordial unity in humans as the union of the sexes. Concerning the Judeo-Christian tradition, to the surprise of many, the Midrash Bereshit Rabba claims that Adam was originally simultaneously male and female, only before God extracted his female element to create Eve. As for Japanese Shintoism, there was Izanagi and Izanami.
Izanagi and Izanami were the central deities in the Shinto creation myth who, in an act of creative impulse, threw a lightning spear from heaven— a phallic symbol, which, like all phallic symbols, is revered not for its visual relation to the penis, but for the active, generative force of life it represents. Izanami, the female half, was ultimately banished to the underworld, and the couple was thereby unable to remain one. In any case, the union of the sexes is an image which would persist in folk Japan.
The kami, or deity, related to sexuality is called “dosojin”— a kami couple that personifies the male-female dynamic. This symbolic notion is worshipped both through abstract icons such as a paired pine and myrtle tree, a tall rock enveloped by a tree, or more explicit scenes of love-making. These folkloric relics have been uncovered all over Japan, typically along roads, as dosojin literally means “road ancestor deity.” Dosojin relics can be found in tiered, hidden cupboards, and also can be used as amulets for a protective effect. These deities are revered at shrines, like in the Tagata shrine in Aichi prefecture, where an enormous tree trunk carved into a phallus hangs over worshippers’ heads, paired with testicles made of rope which visitors may solemnly pull. Other ancient discoveries of eroticism include a lewd drawing etched into the base of the bronze Buddha icon at Yakushiji temple and a variety of bawdy scrolls from the 12th century. One of these comedic scrolls depicts a strange contest over male size and performance. Erotic art of the Heian period (794 —1185) was popular among the courtier class and publicised sexual scandals from within the imperial courts and monasteries.
As woodblock painting techniques were developed during the Edo period (1603 —1867) the genre of “Shunga” came about and flourished. It was produced at various price points, which tells us that it was consumed by various classes. Shunga was enjoyed by all (except the shogunate, and the prudish Westerners who were soon to stumble upon it,) and sought to idealise the rising “chonin” middle class.
Much like the religiosity surrounding the origin of erotic art, a person would carry Shunga in their pocket in accordance with superstitious beliefs. It was said to protect against fire and death for merchants and samurai respectively, though since these two vocations involved being away from one’s wife for extended periods of time, one may suspect the intention in carrying Shunga to be of a more lascivious nature. The characters are often depicted in improbable contortions, and other, more practical, manuals on sex existed at the time, making it also unlikely that the thriving Shunga genre was used for instruction.
In 1617, the shogunate established redlight districts throughout urban Japan to direct middle-class pleasure toward. Lined with flowering cherry blossoms and always ornately decorated halls, these districts were the home of leisurely nights of tea-drinking, tobacco-smoking, and love-making. Women were generally sold to brothels by their families and had their freedom bought by men planning to make them into housewives. These pale-painted women (and sometimes boys, known as “wakashu,”) shuffled in thick, lurid clothing, wearing clogs up to 8 inches tall, and were often the muses of Shunga artists. The pleasure districts were abolished in 1957, and prostitution was outlawed the next year.
Historians know Marie Antoinette to have been an avid collector of Japanese goods, which had at that point been confined to porcelain and decorative objects. In the 1850s, Japanese art re-emerged in Europe as new imports were being brought in, and among them were ukiyo-e paintings. Art critic Philippe Burty coined the term “Japonisme” to describe the trend they inspired.
At the same time, a rebellion against the strict methodologies of academic art was emerging in the hearts of some of Europe’s— soon to be—biggest names. Edouard Manet was studying for the bulk of the decade. In 1856, he had only just opened his studio, and already had begun his path of unconventionality as he portrayed subjects such as beggars, singers, and bullfighters. Edgar Degas, who was newly without a mother, and surrounded by a family of bachelors to dote on him, began his aspirations as a rectified history painter, though this aim would be eclipsed by a penchant for eccentricism. Claude Monet was in Paris, and was entering his adolescence— a time of anxious ambitions and impressionability. All of these artists were to be swept along with the whimsical winds of Japonisme as they passed the quaint art shops situated across London and Paris. Still to be mentioned is Vincent Van Gogh, the most iconic name among the influenced, who began collecting ukiyo-e prints and sharing them with his contemporaries. A Japanese print exhibition was hosted by Van Gogh in 1887.
Despite the far-reaching arms of Japan’s erotic art, its origin is undoubtedly and eternally spiritual. The formidable force of sexuality is seen in Shunga’s magnificently detailed and enlarged depictions of genitals; the viewer can’t help but lay his eyes upon them first. As Philip S. Rawson, the keeper of Eastern art at the University of Durham says: “The sexual engagement in the image is greater than the mere human actors.” And it is this intangible, abstract idea of sexual engagement inherited from ancient times speaking in each of these pieces. Izanagi and Izanami; Shiva and Shakti; Adam and Eve; and the cosmic unity of opposites continues to intrigue and excite us today.
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