Chapter 6

E. Other Erotic Albums by Gu Jianlong and His Followers

In addition to the three works discussed above, five other albums or parts of albums are known to me that can be associated with Gu Jianlong by signature, seals, or style. Only one (Album G) appears to be from his hand; others are copies (Album H) or works by followers or imitators (Albums I, J, K.) The large-scale commercial production of paintings in Suzhou, virtually an industry, ensured that any successful type would quickly be imitated and copied by other artists, as works by Qiu Ying and Tang Yin were in the Suzhou pian; we can assume a similar production of "Gu Jianlong" albums, or albums in his style, in his own time and later. However we account for them, these make up a cohesive group, or type, that can be taken to represent the early Qing stage of the genre. Since leaves from these albums will appear in a later section of this book dealing with recurring themes in the erotic leaves, the albums as such will be only briefly introduced here.

Most likely to be reliably from Gu Jianlong's hand is Album G, one of whose twelve leaves bears Gu's seal.  Erotic albums, as noted by Zhang Geng in the passage quoted earlier, are virtually never signed--and if they are, the signature is usually suspect (the Wang Sheng album is an exception). Their authorship is identified, if at all, only by small seals of the artist on some of the leaves. But Gu Jianlong's mode of setting figures in interior spaces and creating intricate patterns of erotic interaction between them is now familiar, and is seen unmistakably here, along with his favorite motifs such as the screen with rows of small paintings affixed to it.


Fig. 38

Fig. 39

One leaf with such a screen in it (Fig.38) is a night scene, as is indicated by a burning candle on a tall stand and a lamp on the table. Two older women sit at the table, one tending a child, the other resting her forearms next to a qin which she has just played or is about to play. The quiet refinement of this upper-class idyll is violated by a man of the household, possibly the husband of one of the older women, who, hidden behind the screen, gropes the maid; his simper and her distressed look reveal, on a simple level, their feelings. (Even this much of facial expression is usually lost in copies.) Some sound, perhaps an outcry from the maid, causes the two women to turn their heads. If we assume that discovery would lead to domestic discord, we may be wrong: in another leaf (Fig.39), an older woman is assisting in what appears to be the deflowering of a girl who looks very much like the maid. (But again, we should resist trying to read this leaf as a sequel to the other--linking the leaves into narratives simply does not work, overall, for any of these albums.) It is typical of Gu Jianlong's sensitivity to the feelings of the participants in his pictures that the young girl, unusually for pictures of this type, appears to be wincing with pain.

From what we have seen so far, we begin to understand the deep difference between the best Chinese pictorial erotica and most Japanese. The Japanese erotic albums and prints, after taking up from China the model of the early-type series or album (as defined above) in the Genroku period (1688-1704), continued to develop mainly in that direction, endlessly depicting couples engaged in sex. The same is true of Japanese erotic handscrolls, judging from the examples I have seen: apart from the inclusion of furniture, screen paintings, sometimes voyeurs and additional participants, the simple pattern of successive sexual couplings goes unbroken.[1] Virtually all of them, prints and paintings, display exaggeratedly large genitalia; these, along with clothing, serve to distinguish men from women, since differences in bodily shapes are minimized. In the later prints the pictorial intensity is further heightened with grimacing faces, contorted postures, a scattering of used paper tissues over the floor, and, in the accompanying texts, transcriptions of feverish utterances: "he! he! he!" or “mu! mu! mu!” Japanese erotic prints can rise to a very high artistic level--I think especially of some by Utamaro and Hokusai at their best, prints in which the beauty of pure form transcends, or enhances, erotic content. But the only Japanese print artist who consistently explores the possibilities of situational eroticism and poetically suggestive imagery, placing his figures in varied settings that evoke such intensifiers as voyeurism, multiple partners, and the danger of discovery, is Suzuki Harunobu (act. 1765-1770).[2]  

A twelve-leaf album sold at auction in 1985 (album H) bears a signature and seal of Gu Jianlong on one leaf, but because erotic albums are nearly always unsigned, the signature more contradicts than confirms the authorship it claims. The stiffer drawing, and the distinctive rendering of faces (seen more clearly in other leaves of the album, Figs. 64, 65, 71, 74, 76 below), betray the hand of a lesser and later master than Gu Jianlong. The compositions, however, along with the figure types and other telltale features, suggest that the pictures were probably copied closely after works by Gu himself, and are thus of some value in expanding this part of his oeuvre. In the signed leaf (Fig.  40) the recessed area at left and the familiar combination of qin, official’s cap, and hastily-removed clothes, the blue-and-green landscape on the screen and the pencai or tray-landscapes on the foreground table, all belong to the distinctive type of interior scene invented by Gu Jianlong.

Fig. 40

Fig. 41

Still another album, this one sold at auction in June, 1982 (Album  I), is in the style of Gu Jianlong but appears to be an original work by a closely associated artist, perhaps a family member or studio assistant. The subjects of the five known leaves show some originality: lovemaking in a boat on the river shore (a theme already introduced in the Wang Sheng album discussed above); lovemaking in a Tartar camp, with setting and trappings that recall the famous story of Lady Wenji and her Hunnish husband; lovemaking in summer on a mat spread beneath banana plants (Fig. 41). This last leaf is especially lovely, enclosing the elaborate pattern of the entwined lovers, their limbs and their clothes, within the quieter one of the broad leaves, warm colors within cool, in a composition that will offer most viewers more of aesthetic delight than of sexual titillation. The tattered leaves, turning brown and brittle at their ends, provide a familiar plant metaphor for the brevity of earthly pleasures. A feature that links the work with Gu Jianlong's own is the expressive face of the woman, with raised eyebrows and slight smile.

Several surviving albums loosely in the style of Gu Jianlong but later in date testify to a continuing production by followers and imitators of the type of erotic album he created. Good examples are Albums J and K. Judging from these, the later artists, while continuing to draw on the thematic repertory of their predecessors, expanded it by depicting increasingly imaginative and deviant scenes. Album K will be introduced in the following section; leaves from both, as well as from the albums already discussed, will appear in a later section, in which we turn to three recurrent themes that run through the part-erotic album as developed by Gu Jianlong and those who follow: voyeurism, flirting or engaging in sex in the presence of the wife, and lovemaking in the garden.

[1] See Nikuhitsu Ukiyo-e (Ukiyo-e Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) (Boston and Tokyo: Museum of Fine Arts and Kodansha International, 2001).

[2] This dismissive-sounding generalization will be disputed by specialists in Japanese ukiyo-e, and with reason: of course there are exceptions, though none so consistently exceptional as Harunobu. An excellent and well-illustrated overview of Japanese pictorial erotica of the Edo Period is Chris Uhlenbeck and Margarita Winkel, eds., Japanese Erotic Fantasies. For a highly informed and analytical  study of the Japanese erotic pictures in their Edo-period setting, see Timon Screech, Sex and the Floating World: Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999); his commentary on distinguishing the sexes by genitalia and clothing, and the scarcity of the nude, is on pp. 104-110.. See also, however, the quite critical review article by Paul Berry, “Rethinking Shunga: The Interpretation of Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period,” in Archives of Asian Art LIV, 2004: 7-22, where other means of distinguishing gender roles are shown to add to the complexity of ukiyo-e prints.  Questions of gender theory and the definition of “pornography” are peripheral to the present study, which aims only at providing an old-fashioned art-historical account of Chinese erotic painting and printing that can serve to put the materials in order, offer provisional readings of them, and make them accessible for studies of other kinds. The exchange of erotic pictures between China and Japan was two-way: Ming written sources tell of the importation of high-quality examples from Japan. See Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 151-52.


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