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