Shunga: Sexytime at the British Museum

“A foolish couple copy the shunga and sprain a wrist” warns an anonymous quote from 1861 adorning a wall in the British Museum’s saucy new show; Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art. With such a warning on the walls (along with a parental guidance one, naturally) this exhibition has piqued my interest, along with what seems to be half of London’s too.

I suppose it is true; sex sells.

Shunga at the British Museum
Shunga at the British Museum

Even the leaflet for this exhibition is sexier than your average piece of paper. A peep-hole cover reveals two mouths kissing, one biting on the other’s tongue in a most sensual manner. It’s like we’re looking at something we know we shouldn’t be…a theme that many of the pieces reflect. Some display this quite literally, with intimate lovers keeping watch for unwanted spectators. With others, we’re seeing some fantasies that – how can I phrase this nicely? –  break a few taboos.

For all the sexy stuff, the big question is… is it really that titillating?

Well “sexy” is subjective for a start, and although I saw one couple seemingly overcome with lust as I was leaving the exhibition, they were clearly the exception and not the rule. To be honest, I’m not even sure if they saw Shunga – maybe they were merely struggling to find a quiet corner in which to canoodle? Are museums popular destinations for dates?

But let’s get back to the artwork. Shunga – also known by the more innocent moniker ‘Spring Pictures’ – was mostly created by artists of the ukiyo-e school from 1600-1900. Ukiyo-e, language fans, translates as ‘floating world’ and there is something floaty and almost-otherworldly about the images here. It gives them a beauty which masks some of its more grotesque aspects.

Art is Fantasy?

Looking at the pictures, you get to thinking, how much of this is the artist depicting certain *ahem* “things” as he wishes they were rather than as they are? You’ve seen the pictures; you know what I’m talking about.

“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 ‘art is fantasy’?” –Tachibana ho Narisue

So, it’s to make them ‘interesting.’ Oh I do love that word; it covers such a multitude of sins. I wonder though, ‘interesting’ for whom? The artist or the audience? Whose fantasy is being catered for? Let’s look at the ‘Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’ (as it’s known in the West). It’s hard to imagine that cunnilingus from a cephalopod would be considered by anyone ‘erotic’ but each to their own, I guess.

Dream of the Fisherman's Wife
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

There is an element of humour that runs through the exhibition like a stick of sea-side rock. A cheeky little something that isn’t too dissimilar from some of the saucier seaside postcards. In fact, here’s one featuring a cat that had me giggling long after I left.

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
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


If you like the British Museum, you can see badges from there over at the Museum of Museum Badges.

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