Behind Closed Doors: Shunga, Japanese Erotic Paintings

An album of shunga paintings, lot 52 in Chiswick Auctions' forthcoming ASIAN ART sale of 28th February 2017, well exemplifies the explicit and often controversial genre of Japanese ‘shunga’ paintings. Their controversial and sexually explicit subject-matter has seen the art-form subjected to heavy censorship in Japan. The first major Japanese public exhibition of Shunga was held as late as 2015 at Tokyo's Eisei-Bunko Museum after several other institutions had reportedly declined the offer by the British Museum to display their critically acclaimed exhibition, ‘Sex and Pleasure’.

Shunga has a long history in Japan and its tradition derives from Chinese ‘pillow paintings’ which were introduced in the 8th century alongside medical textbooks. Whilst ancient Chinese doctors studied sexual practices as the key to good health and a long life, Japanese artists adopted a more imaginative and humorous style of erotic painting.

One rather conspicuous characteristic of shunga is the exaggeration of genitalia and warping of human forms; a style that nearly all artists collectively followed. Paintings were initially reserved for the collections of aristocrats or wealthy merchants until the development of a sophisticated technique of colour woodblock printing in the 18th century.

This medium rendered shunga more accessible and demand for it grew as emerging novelists began to compose corresponding narratives. With the opening up of Japan to the West in the Meiji period, shunga was considered taboo and the government banned the publication of ‘inappropriate’ books and images. The production and sale of shunga, however, continued underground until the early 20th century.

Cultivated in the hierarchical Edo period (1603 – 1868) with its strict class systems and isolationist foreign policies, shunga provided both pleasure and entertainment in an era of cultural maturation. Though undeniably erotic, shunga is imbued with humorous elements, as well as the beautiful and sensual.

Lot 52

AN ALBUM OF SHUNGA PAINTINGS. 19th Century. Mounted in a pale blue brocade and chitsu covered fold-out album with twelve shunga paintings, each depicting a couple making love, ink, colour and gofun on silk, unsigned, each painting 23.5 x 42cm.

Estimate: £600-£800

春画画帳 無銘、19世紀

Lots 52, illustrated above, will be offered in ASIAN ART, Tuesday 28 February 2017 by Chiswick Auctions.

For more details contact the department on