Erotica and the East

Please note that this story includes images of nudity and of a sexual nature.

So what is erotica? The simplest definition is works of art that show and describe sexual activity, and which are intended to arouse sexual feelings, without spilling over into the realm of pornography. Of course, there is a fine, subjective line between the two, and many an intellectual argument over the distinction. Several lots fall within in this grey area but the argument can be made that these erotic works seek to explore sexuality and sexual themes more broadly than pornography’s narrow graphic depiction. The judgement of erotica or pornography often is determined by a mixture of the social, religious, cultural, and legal norms and structures in which we live.


Most societies have sought to control the representations of the act of love throughout history. Our Erotica sale features erotic art from both ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ cultural traditions. Our first blog in the Erotica series, explored the ‘western’ tradition and we now turn eastwards, for a look at this theme through a completely different cultural and religious lens.


Lot 1000. A Japanese woodblock shunga print attributed to Suzuki Harunobu (c.1724 – 1770), from the series, Amorous Adventure of Mane’emon. Estimate: £1,000 - 1,200


Japanese erotic woodblock prints – ‘shunga’, which in Japanese means ‘spring pictures’ – are one of the cornerstones of any erotica collection. It is fitting that our very first lot is a fine example attributed to one of the great masters, Suzuki Harunobu, who perfected the art of making prints with vibrant colours in near-perfect alignment. The print brilliantly illustrates many features typical in the shunga genre. The characters are shown as fully clothed because, in Japan, nudity is not inherently erotic as men and women would be used to seeing each other naked in communal baths. The clothing indicates to the viewer more about the people being illustrated – for example, whether they are courtesans or foreigners, both of whom were often depicted. The clothing also draws attention to the parts that are uncovered – the genitalia. Shunga couples are often shown in very unrealistic poses with exaggerated genitalia. This draws attention to the erotic content of the piece but also provide a ‘second face’, a more primal face, expressing the passions of the act, something that women in particular were obliged to conceal.

Lot 1016. A Japanese erotic scroll, late Meji Period. Estimate: £100 - 200


When Japan opened to the West in 1853, many westerners were both shocked and fascinated by this widespread artistic genre. Shunga was predominately produced for private clients and seen partly as a way of instructing in the act of love. Over the years this erotic content became more and more regulated by the Government. Nowadays in Japan, exhibitions of artists that had a healthy shunga oeuvre usually exclude their shunga prints from public view.

Lot 1023. Four Erotic Miniatures on Ivory, North India, early 20th century. Estimate: £150 - 200


The erotic arts of India, in paintings, sculpture, wood carvings, or here in these portrait miniatures, has been heavily influenced by Hinduism. Two thousand years ago, Vatsyayana wrote his manuscript, the Kamasutra (erotic codes). A thousand years later, the Chandella kings built one of the finest groups of temples in India depicting erotic positions carved into the stone walls. There are many other examples of erotic art in the last two hundred years, such as the silver lidded boxes in Lot 1015.

Lot 1015. Silver Repousse Lidded Boxes with Erotic Scenes, India, late 19th - early 20th century. Estimate: £600 - 800


Many Hindus believe that sensual pleasure (kama) is one of the four legitimate goals to be sought after in life. Sex is considered to be a good thing to be enjoyed, but within certain boundaries. This teaching is also found within the foundations of Buddhism – sexual activity should not involve harming others physically or emotionally, and contains emotional and spiritual elements, not just physical.


These beliefs - which could be characterised as a healthy, integrated view of sex as part of life - have strongly influenced how sexual themes are depicted in the erotic arts of the region and provide a strong contrast to the erotic arts produced in the western tradition during the same time period. The most famous example from India would be the Kamasutra, a guide to physical pleasure based on the codes of Hinduism, and intended to instruct and guide. Lot 1005 is a fine example that is drawn from this tradition.


Lot 1005. Illustrated Manual of Love-Making and Eroticism, Northern India or Afghanistan, 19th century. Estimate: £2,000 - 3,000


Erotica: Objects of Desire, Wednesday 2 December, 4pm.

For more information on any of the lots detailed above, contact Head of Sale, Valentina Borghi.