Excellent shunga exhibition at British Museum

(C) The Trustees of the British Museum.

(C) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Already on the first day of the exhibition, the display cases in the British Museum’s print galleries are covered with finger prints of visitors who wanted to view the art works as closely as possible. What is so interesting that people put their noses almost onto the glass? The answer: an exhibition on Japanese erotic art, entitled Shunga. Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art.

The visitor is presented with images of phallus contests, close-up genitalia and lots of couples enjoying themselves, presented in beautiful compositions. One print, by Katsukawa Shunchō, depicts a salesman whose merchandise is still unpacked as he is being entertained by six women. Another print, part of a series entitled Treasure Competition (Takara-awase), depicts portraits of two of the eight famous Kabuki actors of the day including portraits of their penises. A nice feature here is that the pubic hair is in the shape of the actor’s wigs.
Shunga, literary ‘spring images’, refer to Japanese erotic prints and paintings and it is safe to say that all well-known Ukiyo-e or floating world artists produced such erotica, with Utamaro and Hokusai being responsible for the most famous designs. Because of their often very explicit nature and the strict censorship rules that were in place, shunga were usually not signed by the artists.

The exhibition concentrates on erotic art of the Edo period (1603-1868) and includes prints and paintings and illustrated books. It is divided into four sections, the early years; the years since the production of the full color print, ca. 1765-1850; shunga and censorship and lastly, shunga in the modern period (i.e shunga in the Meiji period, 1868-1912).

Visitors do get to see many well-known designs and in good condition. Utamaro’s Poem of

(C) The Trustees of the British Museum.

(C) The Trustees of the British Museum.

the pillow (Utamakura) has been selected by the British Museum’s merchandise department as the exhibition’s key work and is now available on mugs and shawls too. Hokusai’s design of two octopuses and a diving girl is equally famous and receives much attention from visitors, who try to catch how the animals’ tentacles wrap around the woman’s body. Luckily the curators have also selected many lesser known works. These are a great joy to look at. Either because of their pristine quality (like the set of Hosoda Eishi’s hanging scrolls [1790s-early1800s] or the early hand-colored prints of the 1680s attributed to Sugimura Jihei showing beautiful fresh colors) or because of the comic scenes depicted, that put a smile on one’s face. Extremely funny are the prints which have translations of the texts that appear in the designs. From a print by Shuncho we learn that the portrayed couple cannot get enough of it: nine times in one day already and still wanting seven or eight times more.

Shunga. Sex and pleasure in Japanese art is the result of a four year long research project, organized by the British Museum, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London), The International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto (Nichibunken) and Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. Many important scholars from all over the world have contributed to this massive project, which besides the exhibition also resulted in an impressive heavy weight 536 pages catalogue, with large fold out pages.

The exhibition provides an excellent overview of the genre of shunga in Japanese art and it is true pleasure to go visit. Given the nature of the exhibition’s topic, Shunga has already received lots of press attention, especially in the UK.

Until 5 January 2014. For more information, see the British Museum website.

Catalogue: Timothy Clark, C. Andrew Gerstle, Aki Ishigami, Akiko Yano (eds.), Shunga. Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art. 536 pages, with over 400 color illustrations. British Museum Press (ISBN 9780714124766); Published in North America by Hotei Publishing (ISBN 9789004263260).