Photo/IllutrationPart of a replica of Torii Kiyonaga’s “Sode no Maki” (Handscroll for the Sleeve) (Rei Kishitsu)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KYOTO--Skills that masters of erotic ukiyo-e art deployed in the Edo Period (1603-1867) to depict provocative images of lovemaking are being salvaged from falling into oblivion through the tenacious efforts of artisans and researchers.

A joint project by the Tokyo Traditional Woodblock Print Association and the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) is trying to replicate “Sode no Maki” (Handscroll for the Sleeve), a serial work by famed ukiyo-e artist Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815).

Their aim is to pass on to posterity the artistic techniques that were in danger of being lost.

The serial work belongs to a genre of Japanese art called “Shunga,” or paintings and prints illustrating scenes of passionate carnal love, which were produced mostly in the Edo Period.

The set of 12 woodblock prints depicts lovers in various situations on sheets of traditional “washi” paper, each measuring 10 centimeters tall and 70 cm wide.

The project began in 2016, and all the pieces are scheduled to be replicated by 2020. Work has so far been completed on three.

Nichibunken owns 10 of the pieces in the series. The association plans to enlist the help of the owner of the remaining two.

The production of Shunga was strictly regulated on grounds the images were considered lewd, and the genre remains taboo to this day.

But many works of Shunga showcase outstanding ukiyo-e techniques.

“The finish of the washi substrate is partially key to the delicate skin coloring in these works,” said Yukiko Takahashi, chief director of the woodblock print association, which represents artists in Tokyo and Kyoto.

“High-quality washi and other tools could vanish when traditional high-caliber techniques die out," said Takahashi, who heads a woodblock print studio founded more than 150 years ago. "We hope through this project to achieve mastery of those techniques."

She saw works from the “Handscroll for the Sleeve” series when they were showcased at a Shunga exhibition held at London's British Museum from 2013 to 2014.

“They were plain, simple and elegant. It was almost as if you could hear the words exchanged between the couples depicted,” she said.

More than 10 artists are involved in the project.

Shoichi Kitamura, 50, a woodblock carver in Kyoto, and Masato Nakayama, 60, a printer who also works in Kyoto, expressed admiration for the elaborate Shunga techniques that until then they had only heard about.

“I sharpened my chisels to an extra level of fineness and steeled my nerves so I could concentrate on my work,” Kitamura said.

“When printing fine lines applying the right level of pressure is extremely difficult,” Nakayama said. “I paid close attention to keep all the colors in the right place because the image is so elongated widthwise.”

Takahashi said she was particularly impressed by the portrayal of pubic hair in the “Handscroll for the Sleeve.”

“The complicated intertwinement of frizzled lines, less than 1 millimeter in thickness, is at once exquisite and evocative of the way the hair is moistened,” she said.

Takahashi learned that Nichibunken had loaned the “Handscroll for the Sleeve” to the British Museum.

This triggered a determination to study the techniques used by the masters, but she was initially hesitant because exhibiting Shunga can trigger public disapproval even today.

But she received encouragement from Nichibunken researchers, including Aki Ishigami, a specially appointed assistant professor of early modern cultural history.

Nichibunken, which owns an internationally acclaimed collection of 400 or so Shunga works, proposed the joint study to reproduce the “Handscroll for the Sleeve" series to the woodblock print association.

Ishigami said an artist working on the project pointed out that a woman's black hair could be seen through her translucent comb, apparently of tortoiseshell, in one of the prints. That detail was faithfully reproduced in a replica.

Momentum for the project also came from budding appreciation of Shunga both in Japan and abroad, as exemplified by Shunga exhibitions held in Tokyo in 2015 and in Kyoto in 2016.