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Lovers in an interior


Harunobu, Suzuki; designer; Japanese printmaker, 1724-1770






circa 1770


Japanese; Ukiyo-e


18th century


Colour-print from woodblocks, with blind embossing (kimedashi and karazuri). Chûban, c.1770.


colour printing


height, sheet, 202, mm
width, sheet, 279, mm


given; 1994; The Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum


This belongs to the category of print known as shunga (‘spring pictures’), higa (‘secret pictures’), or most frequently in the Edo period, makura-e (‘pillow pictures’). The term shunga derives from the associations of spring with love. China and Japan had a long tradition of explicit erotic art. Sex manuals and courtesan critiques with erotic printed illustrations began to appear in the 1660s, and erotic prints became one of the main genres in Japanese printmaking for the remainder of the Edo period. Following an edict of 1722 they could not be published legally, and the names of artist and publisher were usually omitted for obvious reasons (without a signature Harunobu’s shunga are difficult to separate from those of Koryûsai). Most shunga appeared in the discreet form of albums, with a less explicit print chosen for the first illustration. In a similar spirit painted shunga usually took the form of hand-scrolls that could be concealed in the sleeve. It is not clear whether shunga albums were sold under the counter in the ordinary print and bookshops, or what proportion of them may have been privately issued. Shunga overlapped in subject matter with the merely mildly-sensual prints of lovers and courtesans, and more particularly with the abun-e (risqué pictures) that gave tantalising glimpses of flesh through loosely fitting robes. Although anatomically explicit, shunga are not exactly realistic. Physical attributes are often exaggerated and the situations are frequently improbable, sometimes for the sake of humour. Many of the prints, including this example, recall the flavour of the amorous, and often rather far-fetched, episodes in classical Japanese literature. The quality of the designs is often high, and the printing effects can be exquisite, suggesting that they were carefully produced for connoisseurs who were sophisticated in their appreciation of the subtleties of printmaking. In this case the subtlety of the printing effects around the woman’s pudenda doubtless gave collectors particular pleasure. The delicately provocative gesture of the woman’s hand as she lightly grasps the uncertain young lover’s wrist often appears in shunga, although here there is an elegant lightness of touch typical of Harunobu. Although a third figure is often encountered in shunga as a voyeur, it is less frequently discovered in the form of a second lover. In this scene the older lover sleeping through the young man’s intrusion presumably adds a frisson to the encounter. The colours are beautifully preserved and give a good idea of how the slightly faded colours in other prints might have appeared when fresh. The elaborate and exquisite embossing is also in fine condition: both in areas like the wall where it helps to define the pattern, and in the outlines of the figures and pillows, where it indents the paper so that the volumes of the forms swell to give a three-dimensional effect.


Object Number: P.112-1994
(Paintings, Drawings and Prints)
(record id: 182899; input: 2011-03-29; modified: 2015-06-12)


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