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Travel Tip: Art and Archaeology in Finland
Forbidden Images, Erotic art from Japan´s Edo period

Kitagawa Utamaru, Picture Book • Pulling Komachi, 1802, Photo • Sumisho Art Gallery • Photo Courtesy of Helsinki City Art Museum
Kitagawa Utamaru, Picture Book
Pulling Komachi, 1802, Photo
Sumisho Art Gallery
Photo Courtesy of Helsinki City Art Museum
Forbidden Images, Erotic art from Japan´s Edo period
HELSINKI  •  Tennis Palace Art Museum  •  Ongoing
The Helsinki City Art Museum will present in the Tennis Palace an exhibition of a unique collection of Japanese erotic art from the Edo period (1603–1867.) In fact, alongside their better-known work, almost all the old masters produced such candid portrayals of the many forms of sexuality. They include Hokusai, Utamaro and Kunisada, who are featured in the exhibition. These images form an important element of Japan's art and cultural history, though they have been repressed and censored in Japan to the present day. The collection displayed in the exhibition includes paintings, woodblock prints and illustrated books.

In Japan, these candidly sexual images are known as shunga or spring pictures. They are part the ukiyo-e genre of art that emerged in Edo-period Japan. The term ukiyo-e means 'pictures of the floating world' or 'pictures of the world of pleasures'. The genre flourished particularly in Edo (modern Tokyo). Although the theatre and houses of pleasure were common motifs in ukiyo-e, the majority of the genre's erotic or shunga images portray ordinary people: married couples of all ages, shy and inexperienced youngsters, adulterous wives and husbands, liaisons across class boundaries, and same-sex lovers.

Japan has a strong tradition of erotica and its people have held various associated beliefs. In the Japanese middle ages, the samurai believed that sex would safeguard them against misfortune. It was widely believed in the Edo period that placing a shunga in a building would provide protection against fire and as late as the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) soldiers carried erotic books with them as good-luck charms.

Shunga is life-affirming and tolerant. It is also essentially humorous. This is true especially of the witty and comical texts and dialogues between couples that often accompanied the images. The erotic pictures and book illustrations were enjoyed by all ranks of society and the advances made in the woodblock printing technique, which reached its pinnacle in the 18th century, made it possible to mass-produce them at low cost.

Helsinki City Art Museum Web Site

Click here for a Culturekiosque review of The Dawn of the Floating World (1650-1765)

Contact: Tel: (358) 9 310 87 001

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