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shunga scroll painting

Jisekian Shujin, 19th century

Tale of the Brushwood Fence
(Koshibagaki-zoshi)

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manuscript with shunga illustrations; ink, colors, and gofun on paper, with label on exterior brocade, Koshibagaki zen (complete); at the end of the scroll there are three sections of inscriptions, the first is copied from an earlier medieval manuscript with the title: Kanjo no maki (another name for Koshibagaki-zoshi), ichi jiku (one handscroll), and attributing the text to Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127-92) and the artist as a Hogen-ranked Sumiyoshi painter, a further inscription in sosho (grass writing) identifies this scroll as a copy of an original from the collection of a wealthy Kyoto family which is by an artist of a well-known school (according to the previous text the school is Sumiyoshi), the last inscription is dated Tenpo Rokunen Matsu shimio tsuki nanoka (late Tenpo 6 [1835], 11th month, 7th day), with the artist identifying his location: Ise no kuni Anoutsu, Ishida-bashi no minani no sato jin (Ise Region, Anoutsu county, a townsperson who lives south of Ishida-bridge) and signed Jisekian Shujin with kao

hand scroll 14 3/8 by 372 5/8 in., 36.5 by 946.5 cm

The Koshibagaki-zoshi is one of the earliest erotic subjects in Japan. It narrates a scandalous story from the late 10th century which is based on historical events. Accounts from as early as the 12th century record that in the year 986 the Imperial Princess Nariko was sent to the Nonomiya Shrine for a two-year period as a part of her ritual purification before she was to assume the role of saigu (vestal virgin) at Ise Shrine. Only nine months into her stay she was seduced by a new Imperial Guard, Taira no Munemitsu, who had assumed his role only the previous day. Once the affair became known both the Princess and her guard were dismissed from their positions.

The scroll depicts the fast progression of their affair. The illustrations begin with the arrival of the warrior Munemitsu near a brushwood fence (that gives the story its title) and the Princess peeking out at him from behind bamboo blinds. He is as overcome by her beauty as she is of his gallantry. He approaches her verandah in the moonlight where she is seated with her robes partially open. Although the historical record does not specify the Princess as the seducer— in this narrative the Princess is depicted as luring Munemitsu by exposing herself to him. He obliges with oral stimulation before they both completely disrobe and make love in numerous positions which are illustrated throughout the remainder of the scroll.

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According to Akiko Yano in the recent British Museum exhibition catalogue (p. 76, cat. no. 12), there are more than ten hand scrolls of this subject known. A version in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum is thought to date to the 13th century and may be the earliest surviving example. However most extant versions appear to date to the Edo Period. Richard Lane records five dated versions (the earliest in 1779 and the latest in 1849) and proposes that the Koshibagaki-zoshi had a resurgence in popularity in the last third of the Edo Period. Some scrolls bear the innocuous title Kanjo no maki (Enlightenment Scroll), and there are two versions of the narrative text. The calligraphy in 17th century version illustrated in the British Museum catalogue (from Michael Fornitz collection) is signed by the courtier Takenouchi Koretsune (1640-1704) and the pictures are attributed to the artist Sumiyoshi Gukei (1631-1705).

The inscriptions on this example carry on the association with the Sumiyoshi school. The artist who produced this version clearly (proudly) cites the source copy as being by an artist of a 'known school,' which implies that he or she is very likely a machi-eshi ('town painter'- usually without formal training) who is copying a cherished earlier work. The artist's signature, Jisekian Shujin, may be a go (artist's professional name) or perhaps an ingo (pseudonym used for shunga). Although erotic prints and paintings were forbidden during this period, a hand scroll, being an individual work of art, could be commissioned and produced more privately than printed works and thus not easily subject to the scrutiny. As such, although it may seem rather bold to sign the scroll and provide a location of the artist, it is unlikely that anyone owning such contraband would be sharing it with the authorities.

References:
Richard Lane, The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga- 17, Japan: Land of Shunga and the Koshibagaki-zoshi, 1997
Akiko Yano, Shunga Paintings Before the 'Floating World,' in Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, The British Museum, 2013, pp. 62-77, fig. 5 and cat. no. 12

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