This article contains adult content.
In the prestige air of an auction house floor room, a steamy encounter between an older man and his sexy male concubine may be the last thing you’d expect to find (depending on the auction house). Yet, for an estimated price of $35,000 to $45,000, a rare look into Japanese homoeroticism could be yours at the Bonhams’ sale taking place during New York’s Asia Week.
Ink and vibrant color painted onto silk, A Rare and Important Nanshoku (Male-Male) Shunga Handscroll is an unusual textile piece created by Japanese artist Miyagawa Choshun. Dating back to Japan’s Edo period of the 18th century, this 10-plus vignette handscroll illustrates a romantic—at some points racy—rendezvous between two male lovers, an arousing fantasy seldom seen in the well-known Japanese art forms of the time.
Acquired by one of Bonhams’ Japanese art experts, Jeff Olson, the work was rediscovered through a personal collection after last being seen in the 1970s. “It’s really quite rare to find a painting like that these days,” says Olson. “They do exist, but not in the way they used to.”
Japanese erotica, or shunga, takes on a variety of aesthetics and sexual scenarios, allowing the viewer to safely indulge in fantasy (we have the Internet for that now). But with no WiFi throughout the course of the Edo era, these pornographic prints were popular among men and women of all classes, offering a particular escape to those born of a more rigid upbringing. The humorous and fluid style has likely influenced other Japanese art forms, such as anime.
“There are some that are very erotic,” Olson tells The Creators Project. “The difference that I’ve found in this painting, when compared to the ones depicting males and females, is that there’s less attention paid to the genital.”
Olson explains that there’s a great deal of emphasis paid to the “dirty bits” in the majority of shunga, giving the penis a larger than life portrayal. A Rare and Important Nanshoku (Male-Male) Shunga Handscroll, however, shows a theatrical exchange between an older man and an effeminate looking lover, which was a commonly accepted activity in Japanese society of the day.
“There seems to be more focus on the relationship itself,” says Olson. “There’s a certain amount of tenderness in these two characters, which I think kind of plays up on what those kind of relationships were about. It was more than sexual.”
While intercourse is most definitely happening, higher consideration falls on the clothing, the young man’s expressive outfit once again highlighting the type of abandonment the piece may have tried to provide.
“The scroll itself is really well painted,” says Olson. “But delicate handscrolls wouldn’t have lasted very long without care.”
Besides general maintenance problems, Olson thinks that Japan opening its doors to the west also played a part in the significant retreat of shunga handscrolls. “Japan was so eager to embrace the rest of the world,” explains Olson. “Everyone was encouraged to embrace a Western style, so from that point on, and all those things associated with traditional Japanese began to disappear.”
Anything thought to be adverse to Victorian taste—depictions of homosexuality especially—suddenly became taboo, placing these types of fantasy in the privacy of homes, not to be discovered, until now.
The sale of A Rare and Important Nanshoku (Male-Male) Shunga Handscroll and 208 other lots of Fine Japanese Works of Art takes place at Bonhams on March 16, 2016. The auction preview runs through to the 15th.
The auction house holds two sales of Japanese art annually, corresponding with Asia Week in both New York and London respectively.
Asia Week New York—ten days of exhibitions and sales celebrating all things Asian art—is on till March 19th 2016. To see what else it has to offer, click here.