Curated by a team of specialists under Project Leader Tim Clark, the exhibition closely examines Shunga, literally ‘Spring Pictures’ in Japanese, within the context of a society operating in a strict Confucian status quo on one end, but nevertheless which enjoyed a colourful nightlife that is vividly documented in these works. It is a genre that is historically neglected in Japanese academia; the faded 1970s volume on Shunga produced in Japan also on exhibit in this exhibition, apparently the sole exhibition cataloguing Shunga in Japan until the early 1990s, is testament to this.
The large-scale exhibition touches on a range of subject matter within the genre of Shunga, including the classic works by Hokusai and Utamaro; Edo period fan fiction and one of our favourites, a comical encyclopedia akin to a pornographic Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – personally highlighted to us by Tim Clark himself during the press view. The exhibited works are at once erotic, warm and hilarious. A great tip from the rewritten household management on cooking rice concludes that one should simply forget the rice and make love of the kitchen floor.
The artisan skills exhibited here require no questioning; though widely available and affordable to the middle class at the time, Shunga is created with a craftsmanship that is all but obsolete in modern pornography, both in Japan and elsewhere. The draughtmanship and woodblock printing show a fluidity of line that sensualises the figures, textiles and landscapes our couples find themselves in. However, the sophistication of Shunga is not limited to sexuality. Parody, satire and macabre morality (where rapists are depicted as hideous and the ghosts of the sexually wronged return to seek gory revenge) converge with the erotic to create a reason to keep reading post orgasm.
Lawfully speaking, Shunga during the Edo period was illegal, however the curator’s texts scattered throughout the exhibition inform us that these prints weren’t heavily policed, and in practice they remained an acceptable, albeit hidden, genre in society. The irony here lies in contemporary Japanese media: according to the Japanese Huffington Post, this exhibition is struggling to find a touring venue in its own native country, Japan due to laws surrounding public display of ‘vulgar’ images despite Shunga being classed as the same artistic standards as more conventional arts such as Kabuki and Ukiyo-e.
Further to the Meiji restoration in 1867-1868 when Japan opened its doors to Western traders after 300 years of cultural isolation, some argue that Japan hasn’t quite shaken off the Victorian ideals that infiltrated during this time.
While Shunga depicts consenting adults enjoying themselves regardless of whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual, sex in Japanese media today paints a more twisted picture: pornography in contemporary Japan depicts a plethora of sexual perversions from the ‘normal’ to the more ethically questionable…but with pixilated genitalia.
While teenagers purred “Don’t take off my sailor uniform” in the mid 1980s and sexualised pop idols (such as AKB48) being as young as 12 nowadays, genitalia is blocked out in adult entertainment due to vulgarity laws, and Shunga is considered too vulgar for public exhibition.
It does beg the question: what, exactly, is vulgarity? The censorship of genitalia is not unique to Japan with the anime vagina often reduced to an elegant little line akin to a macaroon, in western society, the censorship is rife in mass media, especially cinema. The depiction of a vagina or cunnilingus is a direct route to a an X rated certification yet Shunga celebrates the sexual act with all its secretions and often inelegant delights.
Shunga does not only dismiss the Western constructed mythology of the geisha in permanent submission to the kinbaku wielding man, but it must also raise questions about modern pornography and erotica as a whole. In the same year as the London Feminist Network have relaunched the anti-porn manifesto of the 1970s with a four day conference in September ‘Porn is Toxic’, and Routledge have launched the first academic of pornographic studies, the timing of Shunga serves to add a new voice to the exhibition’s debate on the 25th October regarding the question ‘Whose Pleasure?’ For the women in Shunga are most definitely being pleasured. Here are women depicted in toe curling ecstasy, men enjoying and encouraging the women into cunnilingus and vaginas realistically depicted,(if rather exaggerated in scale, especially the one with sailboats drifting blissfully across it).
The age restriction on access to the exhibition is of course necessary but then our current culture hysteria of sexualisation of children, rape culture and the pornification could learn a valuable lesson from the grown-up attitude of Shunga’s graphic depictions. Through the unflinching, explicit imaging of the private act of love Shunga artists produced a sophisticated erotic that presented men and women within society with an unsanitised handbook of love-making. Although be careful with the instructions;
Read Shunga. Decide to try
Shunga; Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art is at the British Museum until the 5th January 2014
Student Tickets £5 and 2 for 1 on Weekdays after 14:30pm Friday evenings from 17:30pm