While researching some Shunga pictures for our notes on Chapter 3 of The Lust World we decided to include a painting by the Japanese artist Tsukioka Settai (1726-1786). It was from a beautiful set called Four Seasons, so we decided to post the whole set here. These are not examples of the more popular prints but are luxurious (and expensive) paintings, done on silk which formed part of a scroll. At this point, in the early Edo period, the tradition in Shunga paintings was just to include the figures with no distracting backgrounds (although these were included in prints, oddly.) So here we have our copulating couples on a (real) gold background, with the artist focussing on the figures and their beautifully patterned clothes.
Initially, it is hard to see what is particularly seasonal about the pictures but preceding each picture of a couple was a painting of a flower which represented the season concerned. Sadly, we have only been able to find one reproduction of one of these, in one of our books, but it gives an idea of the artistry that went into these pictures. These are not illicit images produced by anonymous or third rate artists; the very finest artists in Japan produced Shunga images. In fact, the most influential guide to Japanese painting, Gasen (basket of pictures) by Hayashi Moriatsu and published in 1721 has a whole chapter on how to produce erotic shunga images
The first image (top) represents Spring and the picture above is preceded by a painting of camellia and a branch of plum blossom, considered a harbinger of the season. This is a painting of a virgin at literally the moment before she is first penetrated: her body tense in anticipation. She is young, as can be seen by her bald pubis, which, traditionally would mean that she was not yet regarded as an adult, which was fourteen in Japan at the time. She wears the furisode, a robe with long, hanging sleeves which is typical of someone of her age.
The next picture represents Summer and the flower picture preceding this was of the summer flower, the iris, which also represents beautiful women. The couple wear lightweight, semi-transparent clothes appropriate to the season. Her pubic hair illustrates the fact that she is a young adult woman depicted in the throes of passion, his and her genitals wet with dripping juices.
Autumn depicts a pregnant woman being taken from behind. The flower before this picture was the chrysanthemum, the symbol of long life. The narrow blue sash is there to support her belly. This woman has her teeth painted with black gallnut which indicates that she is married. The man's shaven head indicates that he is a samurai while she would have been, as was traditional in shunga at this time, a palace courtier.
Here we have the flower painting which came before the final image. It shows a narcissus which represents sensuality. The flowers were painted on paper, rather than the silk of the sexual scenes.
In the last image the couple wear thick, winter clothes and the woman is on top. Not only is this woman also married but her shaved eyebrows indicate that she is an older lady. The woman's passion is clearly demonstrated in her expression and her copious flow. Settai was particularly well known for focussing on sex within marriage and presenting his female subject's sexuality,
Sensitivity to the changing seasons is an important part of the Shinto religion and many non-erotic seasons paintings, depicting such things as the same landscape in different seasons, were popular in Japanese art. Settai's series is also a journey through the ages of woman, as exemplified by the four seasons. The intiial nervousness of the virgin, gives way to sexual liberation, the maturity of the mother to be and, finally, the emotional and physical satisfaction of maturity.