Hiroshige (attrib.), Shunga - Single Leaf from 'Double Cherry Blossoms'

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) (Attributed), Shunga: Single Leaf from ‘Double Cherry Blossoms’, 1830’s. Yotsugiri.

Click here for a full-size image.

It is sometimes difficult to attribute unsigned shunga to particular artists. Because of the threat of prosecution most shunga in the mid-nineteenth century was produced anonymously. There is plenty of scholarship about however which can make identification easier. In this case this single leaf from a publication is by Hiroshige and is an exquisite, delicate sexy image… subtle in its restraint and wonderfully and sensitively drawn.

The image comes from a shunga book called Spring Emotions: Double Cherry Blossoms. Mostly the pages are as explicit as one would expect from this period but this exquisite leaf shows a young woman, partially revealing herself whilst gazing through a crack in a screen. It is a lovely, delicious thing this print. Quite small, beautifully coloured, the focus of the drawing on the brief glimpse of pubic hair exposed at the centre of the image.

Shunga is a difficult subject for many, especially in the strangely puritanical age in which we live. On the one hand, digital or printed sexual images are commonplace and yet the sensitivity around gender, personal space, sexual credit and of course shame is oddly out register. In Edo Japan this was certainly not the case; nudity, mixed bathing, public intercourse, prostitution and so on were quite tolerated and this is evident from the many books and prints that treat sexual matters with an explicitness many still find shocking. The subject of this print I think reflects these social conditions. Voyeurism was considered highly sexually charged. Many shunga prints - like this one - take voyeuristic masturbation as their subject matter… a consequence of the very public nature of private life.

There is little to surprise or offend in this image. Of course being by Hiroshige, it is a rare thing and unusually for shunga it is in pristine condition. The colour, impression and condition are all fine. It is I think a minor masterpiece, one of those perfect objects that should be lavishly and expensively framed. For a similar figure treatment see Michimasa, from the Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets

18 x 12 cm.