"Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art"

By Davies, Christie | New Criterion, November 2013 | Go to article overview

"Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art"


Davies, Christie, New Criterion


"Shunga: Sex and pleasure in Japanese Art" British Museum, London. October 3, 2013-January 5, 2014

Shunga, "spring" or "pillow" pictures, the very, very explicit, erotic Japanese prints and scrolls, have now made it to the respectability of a major exhibition at the British Museum. Indeed the show reflects the important, contemporary collaborative research between British and Japanese scholars on the history, aesthetics, social meanings, and humor of this form of art. It was not always so. When an English trader brought some choice examples back to Britain in 1613, his outraged employers, the officials of the East India Company, had them burned. Puritan England was not ready for pictures of the naked coupling of men with enormous, virile members or with women equipped with fleshy, oyster-like pudenda. It was a time when (and for centuries to come) even the depiction of pubic hair was forbidden, and there is a good deal of that in shunga, too. The British Museum acquired many shunga in the nineteenth century, but along with the lewder products of ancient Greece and Rome they were closeted in the "secretum," cabinets where obscene items were carefully locked away from the gaze of the young person, the uneducated, women, and the more irascible among the clergy. The British Museum embodied two of the great but conflicting qualities of the Victorian era: prudery and high scholarship.

In Japan itself, a consciousness of western disapproval led to the suppression of shunga for much of the twentieth century. Having created a strong, technologically modern country, the Japanese wanted from the West equality of esteem, and so they hid away many distinctively bawdy aspects of their own traditional culture. Even the late twentieth-century journals for the scholarly study of shunga had to add items of clothing or drapery to censor the illustrations being described and analyzed. Today when images of shunga are freely available on Google, as are equally explicit modern Manga comic books, the British Museum can ignore its possible critics.

The first two sections are devoted to the history of shunga from 1600-1900, that is, its early days as a luxury item for the ruling elite to the mass-produced woodblock prints, often sold as books, even lent out for hire by booksellers, of the early nineteenth century. For the elite, trained artists would paint erotic scenes on scrolls, using expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli for the drapery and skilfully including flowers, fans, and vases. For outdoor scenes, traditional scenery in the background, birds in the sky, cherry blossom, and pine trees were also included. It was an art form. Shunga reached its greatest heights when the most famous artists of Japan, such as Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro, devoted a substantial part of their professional lives to it and applied the same high, formal artistic standards as in their other work. Utamaro's Poem of the Pillow (1788) is a masterpiece of refined and elegant coarseness, down to the last hair. In one plate, a man who has just rucked up the exquisite clothing of his partner holds a fan on which is written in Japanese a comic poem, parodying a classical verse.

   Its beak caught firmly
   In the clam shell
   The snipe cannot fly away
   On an autumn evening.

Humor was an important part of shunga, particularly for the increasingly numerous and wealthy urban merchants of Japan who, whilst not defying politically or morally their samurai rulers, did enjoy making fun of them.

Many of the exhibits employ humor--comedy, parody, satire, and even ethnic humor at the expense of the Dutch, the only Westerners allowed to trade with Japan. In one picture from Utamaro's The Laughing Drinker (1803), a large-breasted geisha tries to continue playing her shamisen (a sort of long-handled, three-stringed banjo) while having sex with a client. The verse accompanying the picture records that as the couple continued, her playing became erratic and at the crucial moment she snapped the strings. …

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