After opening its ports to international trade, the leaders and citizens of late 19th-century Japan were consumed by an identity crisis of unparalleled proportions. To what degree should they embrace the values and aspirations of the Western world to which they were newly exposed, and to what degree should they pride themselves upon unique aspects of their culture? In order to garner the respect of Americans and Europeans, many felt that the sexually explicit paintings, woodblock prints, and woodblock-printed books (shunga; literally, “spring pictures”), which had been produced by Japanese artists for the past three hundred years, were embarrassingly outdated expressions of sexual hedonism. By the beginning of the 20th century, production of shunga as a popular art genre had dramatically declined, and until the 1990s, reproductions of shunga were strictly censored.
At the same time, despite attempts by government officials to sanitize the nation’s public image at the beginning of the 20th century, sexuality remained popular as a topic in Japanese art, although the ways in which it manifested itself often were radically transformed. Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art explores areas of modern and contemporary art in Japan that have drawn inspiration from the tradition of shunga. These include sketches by the woodblock print designer Hashiguchi Goyō (1880–1921), photographs by Araki Nobuyoshi (b. 1940) and Yonehara Yasumasa (b. 1959), manga (illustration art) by such artists as Anno Moyoco (b. 1971), and works by Japanese artists now based in Hawaiʻi, including Masami Teraoka (b. 1936) and Mayumi Oda (b. 1941).
Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art is the third and last in the Honolulu Museum of Art’s exhibition series on the sexual culture of Japan. The series began in 2012 with Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga, which featured works from the 17th and 18th centuries, and continued in 2013 with Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan.