Japanese art began arriving in the West from the middle of the 19th century. Before long, it reached the European capital cities where it influenced numerous turn-of-the-century artists such as Whistler, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin. The publication, in 1874, of an article by Philippe Burty entitled Japonisme gave a name to the new artistic and cultural phenomenon. It spread from Paris to Barcelona, where it gained particular importance from the 1880s onwards.

When Picasso arrived in Barcelona for the first time in 1895, shortly before his fourteenth birthday, Japonism was already established and had won over a large part of the city’s artistic circles, amongst both the bohemians and the bourgeoisie. Shops specialising in Oriental art, such as El Mikado (1885) and the museum of Japanese objects in Passeig de Gracia (1880), existed side by side at the turn of the century with the private collections of artists and writers; Japanese art in general, and woodcut prints in particular, thus played a significant role at the heart of the artistic renewal of the Modernisme movement.

In the circles in which Picasso moved in Barcelona, Japonism was particularly in evidence at the café-restaurant Quatre Gats, the haunt of artists clearly attracted to Japanese prints such as Santiago Rusiñol and Isidre Nonell. Some of the Japonist traits which were prevalent at the time can be seen in works produced by Picasso himself at the end of the century, probably the result of a process of artistic osmosis.

Read Japonism in the young Picasso’s Circle, text from the exhibition catalogue (PDF)


The actress Sadayakko fascinated Western audiences, for whom she came to symbolise Japanese womanhood. Trained as a geisha and married to a young and popular theatre actor, Kawakami Otojirô, she first performed in European theatres in 1900. Kawakami Otojirô’s theatre company, with Sadayakko at its head, made its debut in Paris during the 1900 Universal Exhibition with a programme which also included the famous Serpentine Dance performed by Loïe Fuller. The company were a resounding success and Sadayakko returned for a new round of performances in Paris, in the autumn of 1901, and Barcelona, in May 1902. Picasso happened to be in Paris and Barcelona at the same time as Sadayakko on all three occasions.


Eros and Thanatos. This was the ambivalent image of tentacled creatures which had been forged in the European imagination during the second half of the 19th century. The myth of giant killer octopuses created by Victor Hugo in his novel Les travailleurs de la mer (1866) was followed, thanks to the fin de siècle phenomenon of Japonism, by the extraordinary popularity in Europe of an astonishing print by Katsushika Hokusai; an erotic scene between a giant octopus and a woman diver, from his album Kinoe no komatsu (1814).

As a result of descriptions and commentaries by influential writers and critics who were also champions of Japanese art, such as Edmond de Goncourt, Philippe Burty, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Gustave Coquiot, erotic scenes featuring a woman diver and an octopus had a major impact in artistic and literary circles at the end of the 19th century. The erotic iconography of Hokusai’s print inspired different versions and interpretations, according to the artistic fashions of the time, by artists such as Rodin, Rops and Picasso.


The term ukiyo-e refers to a style of painting and printing developed during the Edo period (1600-1867) which depicted the pleasures of city life, including kabuki actors, the courtesans of the Yoshiwara, scenes of everyday life, landscapes and erotic scenes (shunga). Whilst ukiyo-e paintings commanded high prices, prints were generally produced in large quantities; they were therefore less expensive and accessible to the general public. Initially, printing techniques were limited to reproductions in black and white, which were then occasionally coloured by hand. But in the second half of the 18th century, artisans revolutionised the genre by producing prints using a number of colour plates.

Whilst they might be considered a minor genre, these erotic prints, now known as shunga, were in fact quite the opposite and became one of the most frequently produced and widely distributed prints in Japan, despite the censorship laws in force at the time. All of the famous artists of the day produced shunga, from Moronobu and Sukenobu to Utamaro, Hokusai and Kunisada.

Different types of shunga prints were available in a variety of formats. Erotic books and prints were designed to be used by couples to increase their enjoyment of lovemaking, by individuals in private, and also in sex education. Thanks to this diversity, the genre included works of great quality – such as the masterpieces of the end of the 18th century – alongside other books or individual prints produced for the mass market for commercial and pornographic purposes.

Picasso – shunga

Shunga prints were collected by many artists, such as Audrey Beardsley, Edgard Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Klimt, Auguste Rodin, and Pablo Picasso.

Picasso’s collection contained 61 prints by major Japanese artists. Many date from the golden age of ukiyo-e, in other words the second half of the 18th century, including works by Nishikawa Sukenobu, Isoda Koryûsai, Torii Kiyonaga, Katsukawa Shunchô, Kitagawa Utamaro and Kikukawa Eizan.

The inventory of Picasso’s possessions indicates that the majority of these Japanese prints were part of the estate of the diplomat Philippe Berthelot, who died in 1934. But Picasso owned at least one Japanese print many years earlier than this, as is clear from two photographs he took of his friends Auguste Herbin and Marie Laurencin in his studio in the Boulevard de Clichy. Looking closely at the photograph of Herbin, we can make out a print by Kikukawa Eizan, entitled Hanahito, on one of the walls of Picasso’s studio. The unfinished paintings which also appear in the photograph indicate that it was taken in 1911.

Picasso never parted with any of his Japanese prints. It would not be surprising, then, if they had proved to be a source of inspiration at one time or another. Whilst he always shunned any show of exoticism, in the last years of his life Picasso devoted himself, with total freedom, to representing scenes of sexuality, as though in exorcism of approaching death. The drawings and prints of those final years are every bit as bold as the shunga prints with which they establish a compositional and stylistic dialogue.

Read Dialogues with Japanese Art, text from the exhibition catalogue (PDF)