Love in Japanese prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Yûgao

The night of longing: Love and desire in Japanese Prints exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is billed as complementing the shunga exhibition at the British Museum, but for my money this exhibition hits the mark that the BM’s shunga misses. Why? Because it ‘presents a more complex yearning that embraces love and the consequences of love, rather than simply desire and its gratification’, as the introduction to the exhibition says. In other words, it’s not concentrating on just one, erotic, aspect of love but exploring the full spectrum, and sharing some amazing works of art in the process.

The exhibition explores how love and desire were presented and accepted in Japanese art between 1600 and 1900, using forty prints and books by some of the most famous artists of the time including Harunobu, Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi.

Fitzwilliam Museum

The prints range from chaste expressions of longing, such as a lover writing a poem or letter, through to prints of lovers during their most intimate moments.

This picture, The Night of Longing by Torii Kiyonobu I, gives its title to the exhibition; a courtesan writes to her lover of her lonely night spent waiting for him.

Fitzwilliam Museum

This one, lover taking leave of a courtesan by Suzuki Harunobu, shows the moment two lovers part at dawn.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Many of the prints depict the courtesans (or, more accurately, sex workers) of the Yoshiwara. In this one, by Utagawa Kunisada, of a Yoshiwara street at night, a departing customer talks to a courtesan at the upper window.

Fitzwilliam Museum

In this picture, by Utagawa Hiroshige, of the Asakusa rice fields during the Festival of the Cock (the busiest day of the year in the Yoshiwara brothels), the cat is watching the Torinomachi procession winding its way to the Washi Daimyôjin Shrine. But what else is happening in this room out of our sight?

Fitzwilliam Museum

Here high-ranking courtesan Azumado and her attendant peer through the barred window of the brothel at a young man in a Chinese-style jacket. The print is by Isoda Koryûsai.

Fitzwilliam Museum

The exhibition includes shunga, or ‘pillow pictures’ as they were called. I was amused by this little book from the school of Utagawa Kunisada which comes from a series called A Collection of Tricks. The half page can be kept closed, as in my photo, or opened up to show exactly what the lovers are doing.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Besides prints there are illustrated books on display. This one, by Keisai Eisen, is titled Two Aspects of Love. It contrasts the surface of things with their underlying meaning.

Here a woman sees her lover’s face reflected in water. The mandarin ducks are a symbol of fidelity  as it was believed that they paired for life.

Fitzwilliam Museum

These pictures are from Utagawa Kunisada’s Rustic Genji, a parody of the famous Tale of Genji, which tells the story of the hero Mitsuuji’s affairs.

In this one Mitsuuji looks at a book with erotic illustrations with two women. But he has only laid out food and drink is for himself and one of them. Which will it be?

Fitzwilliam Museum

In this one Mitsuuji takes his shy new wife Murasaki back to his mansion in Saga. He visits her room in the middle of the night, and invites her to have sex with him, as ‘this is what a husband and wife should do’.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Some of the pictures are love stories, like this one by Utagawa Kuniyoshi which illustrates one of the One hundred poems by one hundred poets in which two people of different social rank (which keeps them apart) fall in love.

Fitzwilliam Museum

This picture, by Kitao Masanobu (Santô Kyôden), parodies a scene in The Tale of Genji in which Genji’s wife’s cat runs away through the blinds, enabling her lover to catch a glimpse of her. This lady sensibly has her cat on a lead.

Fitzwilliam Museum

The picture at the top of this post shows a detail from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s illustration of the Yûgao story from The Tale of Genji, showing his dead lover Yûgao’s spirit floating through her garden on the night of a full moon.

The exhibition is on until 12th January. The Fitzwilliam is open Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and 12 pm to 5 pm on Sundays. It makes a nice double bill with the Edmund de Waal exhibition I wrote about in my last post – perfect for your post-Christmas day trip, but be careful about taking the kids – I’ve left out the more explicit pictures but they leave little to the imagination.

Fitzwilliam Museum

24 thoughts on “Love in Japanese prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum

  1. Hi Fran, these are lovely. I’m continually amazed at how beautifully fabrics are depicted in prints like these. I’m curious to know what camera you use? Phone or proper camera? I really struggled in the V&A the other day with my SLR so had to resort to using my rather bad phone camera… so thinking of upgrading to something better.

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  2. This sounds like a fantastic double bill with the de Waal. I am interested in your reference to the Shunga at the BM, which I found rather tedious. (I thought the approach you took in your post was very clever, focusing on particular points of interest, rather than looking at it as a whole.) This show does indeed sound more nuanced and intriguing. I doubt I’ll be able to get there in time so am particularly pleased to enjoy your report and lovely photos. Can’t believe you take them on an iPhone – I always assumed you went round with a professional SLR!

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    • No, it’s the trusty iPhone, though I do sometimes feel a bit underpowered when I see people with SLRs at the same exhibitions. I’m glad you liked the shunga post (I agree tedious is the word for the exhibition), but it was so much easier to write about the Fitzwilliam show because it was much more enjoyable..

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  3. Dearest Fran,
    Here i am in the depths of Pembrokeshire truly appreciating your time and dedication so that i can see these wonderful images,
    thank you for your kindness,
    anna hones

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  4. Yes, thanks for a very interesting post, Fran, and I’ll try to get up to Cambridge before the exhibition closes. By the way, are you familiar with ‘The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon’ famously translated by Arthur Waley? I’m a great fan of Waley’s, who did a few other Japanese translations, including ‘The Lady Who Loved Insects’ a copy of which I have, and I am very fond of…:)

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  5. So glad to have discovered your blog, and to read about your trips to the Fitzwilliam, which I seldom have the chance to visit. I won’t be able to catch this one so it was great to read about it here, and also to read your entry about the snow scenes that they put on last year – another one I couldn’t make. Will be checking out the online versions of these exhibitions, for sure!

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