Shunga: Excitement builds for British Museum's Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

By Culture24 Reporter | 12 September 2013

Forming their sexually explicit works within a popular school known as “pictures of the floating world”, the early modern Japanese artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries might not have expected their shunga to star in a show at the British Museum hundreds of years after their deaths.

An image of a piece of graphic art showing two people in early Japan kissing each other
Torii Kiyonaga, detail taken from Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve) (circa 1785)© The Trustees of the British Museum
Meaning “spring pictures”, shunga works were beautiful, funny and saucy. And drawn from collections across the UK, Japan, Europe and the US, the salacious London exhibition devoted to them is as much about the social and cultural past of a country as it is about the 170 prints, paintings and illustrated books set for display.

“Since the opening of Japan at the turn of the 20th century, shunga has been shunned and ignored in Japan,” says Claire Coveney, of the museum.

“This exhibition aims to redress that and reaffirm the place of Shunga in Japanese art history.”

Coveney says ticket sales – which began less than a fortnight ago – are “an encouraging early sign” in achieving that ambition.

“We are extremely encouraged by the sales so far, especially given the risqué subject matter and the fact that we are utilising a space [galleries 90 and 91] that we do not usually use for charging exhibitions,” she adds.

Despite being banned from 1722, shunga publications were rarely suppressed. Their values tended to positively endorse inclusivity when it came to sexual pleasure, although severe Confucian laws on adultery were imposed against a backdrop of ethics based on duty and restraint.

Many of the works on show will be taken from the museum’s own outstanding collection, with the first print, from the George Witt Collection, arriving in 1865.

Lautrec, Beardsley, Sargent and Picasso are also responsible for some of the genre’s popularity in the west, where enthusiasm among collectors began to grow just as the works became taboo in Japan.

The exhibition is part of Japan 400, a programme marking 400 years of diplomatic relations between Britain and Japan.


More pictures:

An image of a piece of graphic art showing two people in early Japan cuddling in bed
Sugimura Jihei, Untitled erotic picture, mid-1680s, Private collection, USA© The Trustees of the British Museum
An image of a piece of graphic art showing two people lying down kissing each other
Kitagawa Utamaro, Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) (circa 1788). Sheet from a colour-woodblock printed album© The Trustees of the British Museum
An image of a piece of graphic art showing a Japanese woman in a kimono half naked
Kitagawa Utamaro, Fancy free type (Uwaki no so), from the series Ten Types in the Physiognomic Study of Women (Fujin sogaku juttai) (circa 1792-3). Colour woodblock print with white mica ground© The Trustees of the British Museum
An image of a piece of graphic art showing two people embracing each other in Japan
Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750), Sexual dalliance between man and geisha (circa 1711-16). Hand-coloured woodblock print© The Trustees of the British Museum
An image of a piece of graphic art showing a Japanese woman in an elaborate dress
Chobunsai Eishi (1756-1829), Young woman dreaming of Ise Monogatari (circa early 19th century). Hanging scroll, ink, colour and gold on silk© The Trustees of the British Museum
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