Sex sells: Fitzwilliam Museum outlines Night of Longing: Love and Desire in Japan show

By Culture24 Reporter | 27 September 2013

In the print the Fitzwilliam’s saucy winter display takes its name from, a courtesan writes the words “a night of longing” on a scroll, awaiting her lover while filled with complex, poetically-expressed yearning.

An image of an ancient Japanese print showing a woman in a blue robe looking upwards
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Looking Cool: a Geisha in the Fifth or Sixth year of Meiji (1888). Colour print from woodblocks with gloss black (tsuyazumi). Ôban format© The Fitzwilliam Museum
Edo-period Japan, between the early 17th and late 19th centuries, was a place where sex was thought of as a part of human nature worthy of celebration, free from sense or shame and judged only on the social standing of those involved.

“Rather than making a special case for the more explicit images, we place them within the wider world of human relationships so subtly explored in Japanese prints,” says Craig Hartley, the curator of an exhibition giving a more artistically-focused partner to the erotica-heavy show which is about to cause a stir – and some blushing – at the British Museum.

“Utamaro’s fabulous portraits of courtesans and Kunisada’s dazzling images of Kabuki lovers have long been famous.

“But there is also extraordinary beauty and finesse in many of the erotic works by the same artists, which have rarely been seen in public.

“In recent years, a more open attitude towards them in Japan has brought a greater quantity onto the market, and they have been more seriously studied.

“This has enabled us to acquire some rare and amazing examples with fascinating links to the rest of our collection.”

On one side of the romantic path lies poems or letters full of chaste longing. Others show lovers in their headiest moments.

Their artistry should not be understated among the smouldering. The production of these works employed some of the most lavish techniques in printmaking history, proving valuable in sex education, personal escapism and even as part of bridal wedding trousseaus.

Sections of the show:

Love stories

Scenes from classic literature and prints of populist love tales, including love triangles, suicide pacts and the action-packed illustrated version of Genji, called Imitation Murasaki – Rustic Genji, which was published in serial form to runaway success in the 1820s to 40s.

The popular serial was written with the extrovert plot-twists of Kabuki theatre, so that the hero - Mitsuuji - was not only a drop-dead gorgeous heart-throb with a string of lovers, but used his philandering reputation as a cover for his investigation into the theft of precious heirlooms.

He became a cross between Genji and James Bond, sometimes using love affairs as a cynical means to get closer to thwarting his political enemies.

Pillow pictures and pillow books

Illustrating the intimacy of lovers before, during and after making love. These names, given to erotic pictures and books in the Edo period, derive from the associations of the phrase “placing the pillows together” – implying sexual intercourse.

Another term was “laughing pictures” (warai-e), with laughter being a euphemism for sexual activity. Humour was often a strong component of the images and accompanying text.

Love letters

Images of courtesans composing, receiving, opening and reading love letters and poems. Although courtesans by profession were paid for sex, it was often their unpaid relationship with their true love that featured in prints.

This was an idealised view of the life of a courtesan aimed at a largely male audience – particularly true of the images of high-class prostitutes in the official Yoshiwara pleasure district on the outskirts of Edo.

Sex for sale

A glimpse of how clients engaged prostitutes, and their route to the pleasure quarter where - if the artists are to be believed - a world awaited with the promise of much more than sex.

  • The Night of Longing: Love and Desire in Japanese Prints is at the Fitzwilliam Museum from October 1 2013 – January 12 2014.

More pictures:

An image of an ancient Japanese print showing two lovers in a lounge wearing robes
Harunobu, Suzuki, Lover Taking Leave of a Courtesan (1767). Colour print from woodblocks with blind embossin© The Fitzwilliam Museum
An image of an ancient Japanese print showing two figures courting among woodland
Utagawa Kunisada, The Kabuki actors Onoe Kikugorô III and Iwai Kumesaburô as the lovers Izutu-ya Dembei and Oshun (circa 1832). Colour print from woodblocks with metallic pigment and blind embossing, surimono diptych© The Fitzwilliam Museum
An image of an ancient Japanese print showing boats sailing on a river under moonlight
Utagawa Hiroshige, Pine of Success and Oumayagashi, Asakusa River (1856). Colour print from woodblocks with mica (kira). Ôban format© The Fitzwilliam Museum
An image of an ancient Japanese print showing lovers lying on a floor under robes
Suzuki Harunobu, Lovers in an Interior. Colour print from woodblocks with blind embossing (kimedashi and karazuri). Chûban format (circa 1770)© The Fitzwilliam Museum
An image of an ancient Japanese print showing two lovers embracing under robes
Katsukawa Shunchô, A Couple Kissing Whilst Making Love (1780s). Colour print from woodblocks (benigirai-e) with metallic printing. Ôban format (1780s)© The Fitzwilliam Museum
An image of an ancient Japanese print showing two courting figures looking at each other
Kitao Masanobu (Santô Kyôden), A Bookcase of Edo- style Kyôka (1786). Colour printed book from woodblocks, ôhon format, bag binding (fukuro-toji), pink covers, printed title slips© The Fitzwilliam Museum
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