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Pictorial Culture

The pictorial culture of the late Edo period (1603-1868) was popular. Ukiyo-e artists depicted everyday activities, along the road, in the theater, and in the brothels. Such pictures were not favored by the feudal regime, but it found it could do little to constrain the population’s craving for these kinds of images.

A celebrity culture evolved out of the mass output of color prints. The shogunate tried to prohibit depictions of current events, but also of the ancestral roots of its own power. Nevertheless, the ukiyo-e artists were able to evade prohibition and baffle the sensors by veiling their expressions with indirect allusion, humor, and satire. The restrictions on imagery did not prevent ukiyo-e printmakers – such as Harunobu, Utamaro, Kunisada, and Hokusai – from creating undisguised portrayals of sexual acts.


A sub-genre of ukiyo-e is called shunga, which means “spring pictures.” The word “spring” alludes to eroticism. In Edo, and especially on the outskirts of the Yoshiwara brothel district, shunga prints were sold or loaned from bookstores. Some of these editions may have functioned as sex education manuals, and high class prostitutes were known to have owned copies

In a society where much of the male population was on the move, such illustrated prints bound as books may have been prevalent indeed, also among women. It was common, even among the more well-known ukiyo-masters, to publish the shunga prints anonymously. There is no famous name behind the series shown here. The artist is hidden but sexuality is in full view. This may also be the case in today’s globally-distributed Japanese graphic culture of manga and anime.

Bildet kan inneholde: menneskelig, rom, virveldyr, frisyre, tegneserier.
Shunga. Artist unknown.
Bildet kan inneholde: kunst, gest, rektangel, skrift, plakat.
Modern erotic art. Ukiyo-e Today. Okamoto Ryûsei. 1974


Published Jan. 22, 2021 12:03 PM - Last modified Jan. 22, 2021 12:59 PM