Sex and Pleasure in
Japanese Art

The British Museum, until 5 January 2014

I brought half a suitcase of magazine porn back from Japan a few years ago. The most compelling were the publications found in ordinary newspaper kiosks or railway stations. Like chunky graphic novels in format, they featured drawn erotic exploits and narratives, explicitly rendered, with genitalia greatly exaggerated and stylised. The ‘stories’, predictably, always lead to a finale of cum shots, akin to the aftermath of a water-bomb impact or liquid firework eruption.
I was reminded of these as I entered the Shunga exhibition at the British Museum. Shunga (‘spring pictures’) originated in 17th century Japan, and refers to a format of 12 varied drawn, printed or painted scenes depicting sexual couplings. The work of ‘floating world’ artists, (including Hishikawa Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai), shunga images were used as guides to lovemaking, as gifts for newlyweds or for personal stimulation. They began life in the gentrified courts, later filtering down into wider society and, although banned from 1722, continued to be widely distributed.
Beautiful and refined in execution, shunga images were popularist and ‘common’, not divorced from everyday life, the scenes being predominantly set in domestic environments. The exhibition gives the impression that everyone is having sex – the show is vast and the shenanigans seem to be going on everywhere and at all times, lending many of the images a slightly comical quality. All are everyday and consenting, with very little force, which, when it is present, is shown as ugly and repellent as a way of condemning agression. Sex is celebrated for its universality – a liberating pursuit freely enjoyed by a cavalcade of oddly plump figures. There are images of ‘quickies’, of opportunist trysts, of newlyweds and long-married couples. Any and every moment becomes an opportunity for sexual liaison.
Early shunga works feature round, dough-like, egg-white bodies, their outlines drawn as thin as hair lines; the men bald-headed and akin to adult babies. Such economy of line and surface detail focuses the gaze on hints of tint around buttock or lip and directs the eye to tiny hands and feet, and, in violent contrast, male genitalia which are wildly exaggerated in proportion (it’s no surprise to learn that shunga artists were exclusively men), as if a magnifying glass has been strategically rested over them. What’s more, genitalia is put ‘anywhere’ so long as it’s clearly visible – perspective and style dispensing with anatomical accuracy almost completely. Cocks are huge and fannies are swarmed with fine hair halos.

Artist unidentified, untitled shunga handscroll, early 17th century; ink, colour, gold. silver and gold leaf on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Artist unidentified, untitled shunga handscroll, early 17th century; ink, colour, gold, silver and gold leaf on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum


Text and narratives, when introduced, are printed in clouds or fringes of drapes at the top edge of the image, like graphic novels or comics. Many are on scrolls like film reels or in slits, giving an edited view, as if looking through a letter box. Some scenes include a voyeur figure within the image, a witness to the sexual union. This device seems to grant us, as fellow viewers, ‘permission’ to keep looking.
The scenes are awash with eroticism and pleasure, made manifest not just through the figures but in the opulence and freedom of rich, flowing, highly ornate drapery and screens, and not least in the delicate rendering of the prints themselves. Nature adorns every surface; trees and plants creep into all aspects of the image, growing, unfurling and seeping through finery, clothes, fabrics and patterning. Many of the more stylised images seem to anticipate the heavily phallic work of Aubrey Beardsley, a point emphasised by the inclusion of Beardsley prints, alongside other Western images which embody a shunga-like stylised eroticism.
Shunga proffers a vast, relentless collection of sexual couplings – the repetition tends to provoke a kind of genitalia fatigue after a while, so there is welcome, er, relief in a display of sex toys, wooden phalluses particularly. The sheer breadth of the exhibition notwithstanding, this is a fascinating collection, from both a visual and historical aspect. The participants may not be exactly eye candy, in the modern sense, but the exhibition is definitely easy on the eye.
Louise Clarke

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