Archive | December 2013

Aesthetics of the Erotic in Japanese Art and Modernist European Literature

The British Museum exhibits an important Japanese painting collection called ‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ which displays a high number of both erotic drawings and paintings in Japan since the 16th to the 19th century. The exhibition follows the history and development of this kind of art which became controversial in the early 20th century Japan. Sexuality is mainly explored as something very natural, common and even funny; the aim of these works were to be enjoyed by couples, as guidebooks, or for single stimulation. They present different positions, and erotic stories where usually a third person played a roll such as a jealous wife or a curious observer. Both heterosexuality and homosexuality are equally depicted and a shameless sense of enjoying sex in whatever form or place predominates.

The shunga experienced some popularity in Europe through many artists of the Modernist period who were influenced by the erotic sense of the Asiatic paintings, such as Toulousse Lautrec. In a general sense, Japanese paintings arrive at Europe through vivid colours and sinuous lines; the sense of curve and sensuality is mainly predominant in both the Shunga and Modernist paintings (Tissot, Monet, and Kiyonaga):

 James_Tissot_-_La_Japonaise_au_bainClaude_Monet-Madame_Monet_en_costume_japonais

Kiyonaga_bathhouse_women-2

In Modernist literature eroticism is also stylised through the use of language or equating sexual and erotic experiences with art and artistic experiences. The whole sexual exploration present in Modernist literature in works from Proust, Gide, or Schnitzler, among others, testify that sexuality, or sensual experiences in general, can also be intellectually enjoyed and considered beautiful in themselves. The use of vivid colours, for example, in Gide’s The Immoralist depicts a sensuous and artistic approach of erotic bodies which are part of the exotic environment they belong to, and therefore, to its beautiful natural scenes. Swann in Remembrance of Time Lost enjoys music and painting as he enjoys his lover, finding difficult to separate artistic from sexual pleasure. His high stylised narrative, moreover, makes it almost impossible to differ between an act of artistic creation and a sexual one.

The close relationship between artistic-visual and sexual pleasure is already defined by Freud in his Essays on Sexuality where the object of beauty may lead to a sexual desire. Japanese art very well attempt this fusion outlining especially curve forms which of all are the most agreeable.