Shhh… Shunga

“Shunga, sex and pleasure in Japanese art”: the catchy title of the British Museum exhibition, along with explicit advertising in the tube, should be able to attract the crowds. I convinced my friend N to go to the British Museum on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Shunga, literally spring pictures, are erotic prints, paintings and drawings made in 1600-1900 Japan, mostly created by artists from the ukiyo-e (“floating world”) school. These were not osbcure artists: well-known Japanese printmaker Hokusai made shunga. Hokusai’s famous ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’, depicting a female shell diver sexually entwined with a pair of octopuses, is on show at the British Museum exhibition.

The exhibition is displayed chronologically and from the start, the show doesn’t disappoint in terms of explicitness. As my friend N highlighted, there was a stark contrast between the detailed and beautiful fabrics of the women’s clothing and the crudeness of the intercourse and sexual organs depicted. Women are rarely without or far from clothes, which gives shunga artists the opportunity to demonstrate their technical abilities in representing kimonos. Two fine kimonos feature in the exhibition.

We also noticed that the couples, including same sex couples or trios, and occasionally monks/nuns, were not represented in bed at home but always in spontaneous intercourse, usually al fresco. This again gives the opportunity for shunga artists to depict marvellous landscapes, in particular cherry blossom trees. Indeed, we are told in the exhibition that the viewing of cherry blossom trees excites carnal desire. The exhibition interestingly shows the development of shunga from 1600 to 1900, and we can see the evolution from bashful unexpressive faces to more unequivocal sexual gestures, such as a woman biting her bed cover.

If you can, try to go during the week or expect to queue in front of the vitrine cases. “Shunga, sex and pleasure in Japanese art” runs until 5 January 2014 at the British Museum.

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