Sex, pleasure and wish fulfilment: Japan's shunga art at the British Museum

By Sarah Jackson | 02 October 2013

Exhibition review: Shunga: sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, British Museum, London, October 3 2013 -  January 5 2014

shunga print of two lovers under a quilt
Sugimura Jihei (fl. 1681-1703), Lovers under a quilt with Phoenix Design (mid-1680s). Untitled erotic picture© Courtesy of Private collection, USA
The title Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills does little to prepare you for the scene of a female diver locked in an erotic embrace with an octopus.

Almost exactly 200 years after its creation, this print by Hokusai - best known for his famous image of The Great Wave off Kanagawa - still has the power to shock a modern audience.

It neatly sums up the key characteristics of shunga (literally, "spring pictures") as identified by the British Museum: “A seemingly unproblematic fantasy world of sexual wish fulfilment”.

Cunnilingus as performed by an octopus may not be many people’s idea of wish fulfilment. But one of the most delightful surprises of shunga is the variety of sex depicted. Curator Timothy Clark calls the genre a “love letter to sex” – in all its forms.

Although the couplings (certainly in this exhibition, at least) are mostly heterosexual, there are plenty of examples of homosexual pairings. During this period in Japan, it was considered acceptable for a mature male samurai or priest to conduct a sexual affair with their young male apprentices.

There are far fewer depictions of lesbians although, much like today, there seems to have been a taste for fantasies of what women get up together when the men are away.

Interestingly, the social rules of when homosexuality is acceptable are remarkably similar to Archaic and Classical Greece, which at times idealised pederasty – a socially acknowledged erotic relationship between an adult male and a younger male.

This plays nicely into what Director Neil MacGregor calls the museum's raison d'être: to demonstrate our common humanity. We simply do the same things differently sometimes.

shunga print of cat and naked man.
Kawanabe Kyosai (1831 - 1889), One of Three comic shunga paintings (detail), c. 1871 - 1889. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper.© Courtesy of Israel Goldman collection
The difference between shunga and erotic prints during the same periods in Europe are ably demonstrated by a very small selection at the start of the exhibit.

One of these, an engraving of Giulio Romano's The Positions (1510-20), was heavily doctored during the early 19th century in order to censor its explicit poses. Now only nine fragments remain, revealing much about fears of obscenity in the 1800s.

Meanwhile, Thomas Rowlandson’s The Farewell, dating from the early 1800s, is a far more explicit version of the typical bawdy Carry On-style humour we still see on seaside postcards.

This lewd but good-natured humour towards sex is far more similar to shunga than any classical-inspired erotica produced on mainland Europe. In one painting, a cat toys with a man’s testicles; in another, courtiers proudly present their exaggerated members at a penis-measuring competition.

The genitals of both sexes are so exaggerated in shunga that it leaves literally nothing to the imagination. A wall text quotes Tachibana no Narisue, an artist in 1254: “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 that art is fantasy?”.

Despite a similar preoccupation with the humorous side of sex, shunga has a far greater artistic pedigree than seaside postcards. Whereas Thomas Rowlandson is unusual in the British artistic tradition for producing erotic prints, shunga prints were an expected part of Japanese artists’ portfolios.

Once viewers get past the shock of seeing such explicit scenes, other details begin to emerge – particularly the beautifully rendered robes worn (or, more accurately, half-worn) by the couples. Full nudity appears to be rare, and the gorgeous colours and designs of traditional Japanese costume frame the prints with sensuous folds.

Early versions were hand painted on scrolls, some of which are highly exquisite and expensive. Twelve Erotic Scenes in Edo (circa 1790), by Hosoda Eishi, is particularly beautiful, with gold leaf and gilding used liberally as decoration on both sides of the scroll.

By 1765, the perfection of full colour woodblock printing methods in Edo made shunga available for the masses, and it was during this period that the conventions of the genre became more firmly established. It was also during this period that the samurai elite began to censor shunga – but for its political, not erotic content.

Shunga presented a threat to Japan’s strict social hierarchies by depicting sexual congress between different social groups; some books may even have revealed secret court gossip. However, the authorities did not strictly enforce the ban, meaning that shunga flourished under the radar.

It might be easy to dismiss Shunga as a sensationalist exhibition, but the work displayed reveals a fascinating insight into a private world. It’s one both familiar and strange to us.

Sexual life is revealed as loving, passionate, comforting, rough, illicit – even violent at times. Despite existing in a fantasy world, shunga artists manage to reveal a great deal about our common humanity.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Admission £5-£7. Book online. Parental guidance advised for visitors under 16 years old. Follow the museum on Twitter @britishmuseum.

More Pictures (Warning: some are explicit):

An image of a piece of graphic art showing a Japanese woman in an elaborate dress
Hosoda Eishi (1756 - 1829), Young woman dreaming of The Ise Stories, early 19th century. Hanging scroll, ink, colour and gold on silk.© The Trustees of the British Museum

An image of a piece of graphic art showing two people in early Japan kissing each other
Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815), detail from Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve) (circa 1785)© The Trustees of the British Museum

An image of a piece of graphic art showing two people lying down kissing each other
Kitagawa Utamaro (died 1806), 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

shunga image of a woman and two octopi.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Diving woman and octopi, page from Kinoe no komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day, or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills) (1814). Illustrated book, colour woodblock. Popularly known in the West as ‘Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’© Michael Fornitz collection, Denmark

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

You might also like:

Ancient Egypt To Japan - An LGBT Trail Round The British Museum

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The best art exhibitions to see in London during autumn 2013

Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

Latest comment: >Make a comment
What a ridiculous assertion that the female partner imagery was purely what the men at the time were fantasising about ...
In the 'real world' then and now, sex between women exists mostly for the pleasure of women !!
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