Exhibition: Shunga – Sex & Pleasure in Japanese Art at the British Museum

There’s an exhibition on at the British Museum in London at the moment which is causing quite a storm: Shunga – Sex & Pleasure in Japanese Art.

Shunga: Sode no maki (Handscroll for the sleeve) by Torii Kiyonaga

Shunga: Sode no maki (Handscroll for the sleeve) by Torii Kiyonaga

For those of you who don’t know, ‘shunga’ (春画) is the term for erotic art, literally meaning ‘spring pictures’ (‘spring’ is a euphemism for sex). Shunga, usually in the form of ukiyo-e woodblock prints but also made as hand scrolls, was produced between about 1600 and 1900. I hadn’t come across much shunga before, but have quite an interest in ukiyo-e, so I thought I really ought to check out the exhibition and see what all the fuss was about. Of course, cameras weren’t allowed in the exhibition, but I’ve managed to source some images from various websites (credits are given below all images that are not my own). I’ve tried to use images that were in the exhibition, but as I’m working from memory I can’t guarantee that they all were. I should add that, if you haven’t scrolled down yet, you might want to remember that you are about to view erotic art. It might not be suitable for all people or places so, if you want to escape now, click here for fluffy bunnies.

We British are known for being such prudes (although are we really?), but something about this exhibition seems to have caught our imaginations. When I visited the British Museum the gallery was packed with quite an assortment of people (all over 16 of course, as this is definitely a PG exhibition). But as I walked around there was a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere. A lot of people didn’t seem to want to linger too long beside each image. A few younger people giggled, some discussed the themes of the images, but mostly people just looked and then looked away.

I’m in no way qualified to discuss this topic in depth, but I think there is a massive difference between porn and art, and shunga definitely falls into the latter category. Having said that, the art was a lot more explicit that I was expecting, having only really seen the tame kissing image above which is used to advertise the exhibition, and this enticing video advert:

Here’s an example of one of the more explicit images (not intended to shock anyone, just to give you a ‘flavour’ of the exhibition):

Katsushika Hokusai

Fukujuso (The Adonis Plant) by Katsushika Hokusai

(Image source)

One thing that struck me about the majority of the work was just how oversized everything was! It was like the artists had thought “I’m going to draw a penis, and I don’t want anyone to miss it!”. In fact, there was a brilliant quote on the wall of the exhibition which I scribbled down:

The old masters depict the size of ‘the thing’ far too large… If it were depicted the actual size there would be nothing of interest. For that reason don’t we say ‘art is fantasy’. (Tachibana no Narisue, Things Written and Heard in Ancient and Modern Times, 1254)

The other thing I noticed though, once I tore my eyes away from the obvious focal points, was the tenderness and beauty also depicted in the pictures. Fabrics are soft and crumpled, hair gently falls on to breasts, eyes meet… these are pictures of love and relationships, not just sex.

Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788

Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788

(Image source)

Lovers under a quilt with phoenix design by Sugimura Jihei (mid - 1680s)

Lovers under a quilt with phoenix design by Sugimura Jihei (mid – 1680s)

(Image source)

So, what was the point of shunga? Was it art, porn, or simply something to titillate? The answer is, it was a bit of all of those things. It certainly wasn’t simply pornography though, and many well-respected ukiyo-e artists made shunga as well as regular ukiyo-e (the image above is by Hokusai, who is most famous for his Great Wave woodblock print). During the Edo period (1603 to 1867) shunga gained popularity, but there were also attempts to ban it. The bans drove the art underground, and even to this day I don’t think shunga is something a lot of Japanese people have seen in large quantities, making this exhibition a really big deal.

Shunga, like all art, gives us a great insight into a culture and people through the ages. We can see scenes of every day life depicted in shunga, such as this bathhouse scene:

'Men with women in a bath house' by Isoda Koryusai (18th century)

Men with women in a bath house by Isoda Koryusai (18th century)

(Image source)

Whilst communal bathing might seem like a very odd thing to us typically shy Brits, it’s perfectly normal in Japan (although these days baths are usually separated by sex). Personally, I think it’s customs like this that actually give the Japanese (on the whole) a very healthy attitude towards sex and nudity.

Recent press here in the UK (The Guardian’s ‘Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?‘ and the BBC’s ‘The Japanese men who prefer virtual girlfriends to sex‘) would have us believe that people in Japan have no interest in having sex and only want virtual girlfriends. It is true that the birthrate is down, but I don’t think that can be attributed entirely to the popularity of video games like Love Plus (ラブプラス). We must remember that shunga and it’s healthy (even comical) attitude towards sex has been around for centuries, and that these images were part of a society that had a much more positive and open attitude towards sex than we Brits do. As Lesley Downer writes in The Telegraph:

Many classics of Japanese literature are not about battles but about love. The ninth century Tales of Ise, written at about the time the Anglo-Saxons were producing Beowulf, was the work of the celebrated poet Ariwara no Narihira. Having seduced the Vestal Virgin at the Great Shrine of Ise, the author was exiled and travelled across the country, sleeping with women, boys, imperial consorts, even a 99-year-old, and exchanging poignant love poems with them all.

Japan is, even to this day, a country which still holds annual fertility festivals – something we could hardly imagine in the West, and only see as an amusing side of another culture. It’s common to see articles about how strange Japan is – on the one hand no one wants to have sex unless it’s in a video game, and on the other hand everyone is reading sexy manga on the train – but this is a very narrow view of an extremely involved culture. I know I’ve been stereotypical about Brits in this post – claiming that many of us are prudish and shy when it comes to sex – but as a Brit I do feel qualified to say that is true of many of us (although certainly not all!). Personally, I don’t want to form any stereotypes about the Japanese, as I can’t possibly claim to know the culture well enough.

But what I can do is examine the art, which will give me an insight into Japanese culture and attitudes. It’s true that even in Hokusai’s day the idea of perverted and ‘strange’ sex existed (see image below), and you can see echoes of this in today’s manga and anime. I did find some example of modern-day octopus sex manga online, but I don’t really want to post them here as they’re pretty graphic, and I have to draw the line somewhere! (As an aside, I came across the very interesting work of Yuji Moriguchi whilst preparing this post – Moriguchi is “a Tokyo based artist that illustrates a world of traditional Japanese paintings blending in with modern manga… seemingly heavily influenced by Katsushika Hokusai…” – well worth checking out!)

Diving woman and octopi by Katsushika Hokusai

Diving woman and octopi by Katsushika Hokusai

(Image source)

But we mustn’t forget that images like the one above do not illustrate an entire culture, just as the sexually explicit manga I didn’t want to post here doesn’t either. In the BBC programme ‘No Sex Please, We’re Japanese‘ aired recently, Anita Rani implied that the two men she interviewed who were dating virtual girlfriends represented an entire society of people who no longer wanted to date and have sex. They don’t. Japanese people, like the rest of us, have always and still do like to have sex. The declining birthrate can probably be attributed to many other factors, such as the economy, soushoku danshi, the changing role of women in society, and countless other things I couldn’t possibly begin to examine here.

Basically, what I’m trying (perhaps slightly inarticulately) to say, is that the exhibition Shunga – Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art at the British Museum is eye-opening and well worth visiting. It will give you a very exclusive insight into Japanese culture, and one that contradicts a lot of recent press about Japan. The exhibition contains woodblock prints, hand scrolls, netsuke, and even old sex toys (yes, the sex toys are slightly creepy, but still interesting!). There’s beauty, humour, love, and pain – everything you should expect, really.

Netsuke by Tomoyuki

Netsuke by Tomoyuki

(Image source)

Shunga – Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art is open until January 5th, so you have plenty of time to get down to the British Museum and see what the fuss is all about for yourself. In case you can’t make it there, or want a bit more information, here’s a great video from the British Museum:

And here are a couple more images to whet your appetite… 😉

Shiki kyo-en zu (Contest of Passion in the Four Seasons) by Hosoda Eishi (late 1790s–early 1800s)

Shiki kyo-en zu (Contest of Passion in the Four Seasons) by Hosoda Eishi (late 1790s–early 1800s)

(Image source)

Uwaki no so (Fancy-free type) by Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1792-3, )

Uwaki no so (Fancy-free type) by Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1792-3, )

(Image source)

5 thoughts on “Exhibition: Shunga – Sex & Pleasure in Japanese Art at the British Museum

  1. This post was so interesting and informative!
    I’m totally British and prudish, and was at first a bit shocked at how graphic some of the prints are, but then I thought about some of the stuff on TV today 😉
    I’ve always wondered why the man bits are so big, and now I know!
    I’ve also been to a couple of fertility festivals in my time – always good fun.
    I liked your comment about the recent articles about the declining sex and birth rate. If people here weren’t having sex anymore, all of the love hotels would be shut down, and as far as I’m aware, they’re still alive and kicking :p
    Finally, I wish I were in the UK so that I could go and see this exhibition. I saw a few prints in a recent “Love” exhibition in Roppongi, and I wasn’t the only one who was interested; lots of Japanese people were too.
    Anyway, I shall end this massive reply by saying well done on presenting an aspect of Japanese culture that people may not be familiar with, so well! 🙂

    Like

  2. I really enjoyed the exhibition – I thought it was humorous, beautiful and gave an insight into Japanese culture. Regarding the huge genitalia, I guess it’s exactly the same as pornography today in that it’s not a realistic representation. If it was then you wouldn’t see ‘anything’ and the whole point of shunga/pornography through the ages is that it is titillating. I noticed in the media that some were calling the exhibition grotesque which I think is a bit of an over-exaggeration. Although I am happy to admit that I did feel a bit weird looking at some of the pictures being surrounded by so many other people – it was very popular when I visited and there was a bit of a queue to look at certain artworks! I think my favourite piece was Kyosai’s cat who was trying to swat some testicles. It was not the most artistic piece on display but I think it best represented Japanese humour!

    I saw the BBC programme on the falling birthrates in Japan and felt that it was just an excuse to point and stare at bizarre Japanese subcultures. A better idea for a documentary would be to look at how the more advanced society becomes, the more younger generations choose to manage their sexual reproduction. I’m not so sure it has anything to do with any one country itself, more a change in how younger people live their lives.

    Anyway, loved your post!

    Like

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