An intensely rich feast for both eye and mind is currently showing at the British Museum where 170 works ranging from paintings, sets of prints and illustrated books from UK, Japan, Europe and USA feature ‘Spring Pictures’, the erotic art of Japan from 1600-1900 or in other words, Shunga.
These works of art were developed largely under the auspices of the ukiyo-e school (pictures of the floating world) and saw themselves as a natural progression from the day to day ideals of sex and humour already prevalent in paintings. Shunga, however, were the property of the rich and rulers and although continued through strict conformist times and even banned from 1722, in private, Shunga continued to explore the openness of sexuality in every day lives as well as the sex-industry, often known as ‘pleasure quarters’. It is not unexpected to see illustrations of married couples making love, even, in some contexts, homosexual intimacy.
Shunga wasn’t just titillation for men, however, as the exhibition explains, women often received Shunga as part of their marriage trousseau and particular collections were almost certainly created more for women than men. From a society of such repression and rules, it is refreshing to see that behind closed doors, sexual pleasure was accepted and indulged by both genders.
The exhibition houses work by such greats as Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694), supreme in his signals of erotic suppressed emotion and blossoming sexuality, Kitagawa Utamaro (ca. 1753 – October 31, 1806) whose studies of light and shade made him exceptionally appealing to European impressionists and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) not only famous for his ‘Mount Fuji Seen below a Wave at Kanagawa’ but of course, physical embraces between couples so tender that it might make one feel like a peeping tom.
The history of Shunga is fascinating and this exhibition not only informs but also leads to question Shunga’s place today. In a time where erotica is often photographic, is there a place for the line drawing, the hint and not so hidden positioning of genitalia? Of course there is. Shunga’s magic lies both in the simplicity of line of the body, each curve or dimple moving into view with the gentle rhythm of human intimacy and the intense patterning of the clothing, the robes, the backgrounds which capture so effectively every sensual second you are sharing in full view.
Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese Art is being exhibited at The British Museum, London from 3 October 2013 – 5 January 2014. Room 90-91, Admission charge.
Text: © JL Nash, 2013
Images: Courtesy of The British Museum, London
No1: Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815), Detail from Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), c. 1785. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
No2: Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806), Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), c. 1788. Sheet from a colour-woodblock printed album. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
No3: Sugimura Jihei (fl. 1681–1703), Lovers under a quilt with phoenix design, untitled erotic picture, mid-1680s. Private collection, USA.