British Museum Magazine – Timothy Clark, curator of Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art talks about the exhibition

Timothy Clark, Head of the Japanese Section, British Museum and curator of Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art 

Commodore Perry received them as a diplomatic gift, Beardsley hung them in his bedroom, Zola hung them on his stairs, Picasso latterly admitted, ‘I love them, I have a lot of them’. Francis Hall, one of the first US businessmen to visit Japan after the reopening of the country in 1859, was amazed when the respectable married couple who had entertained him to dinner in their home proudly showed him some treasured examples, husband and wife together.

Shunga, literally ‘spring pictures’, is the name given to the major genre of explicit erotic art created in Japan during the early modern period, c.1600–1900. At its best, shunga celebrates the pleasures of lovemaking, in beautiful pictures that present mutual attraction and sexual desire as natural and unaffected. Generally the couples shown are male-female, sometimes married, sometimes not. It is not unusual – particularly in the earlier part of the period – also to find male-male couples, according to accepted custom whereby a mature man courted a youth. The genre’s artistic conventions include facial expressions conveying a sense of deep pleasure, exaggerated sexual organs that are the source of that pleasure and surroundings filled with gorgeous textiles, accessories, food and drink. Often the pictures will contain snippets of humorous and even farcical conversation between the lovers. Another common name for a spring picture was ‘laughter picture’ (warai-e).

Not just the masters of the libidinous ‘Floating World’ (ukiyo-e) school whom we might expect – leading artists such as Utamaro (d.1806) and Hokusai (1760–1849) – but also painters of more traditional schools, such as the Kano, created shunga and in quantity. Produced to commission as delicately painted handscrolls and also as expertly colour-printed illustrated books and sets of prints, shunga was discreetly enjoyed by many sections of Japanese society during the Edo period (1600–1868). Traditional uses, some inherited from China, were said to include sex education for a newly married couple, steeling the mettle of a warrior going into battle and even protection against fire and disaster in the home. This latter use was apparently given considerable fillip in late 18th-century Kyoto, when a whole neighbourhood burned down, apart from a storehouse containing a painted erotic scroll by the celebrated master Settei.

Since at least the Renaissance in Europe, prevailing religious and social bans have made it well-nigh impossible for leading artists to produce works that are explicitly erotic. Did similar conditions not apply in the case of Edo Japan? In fact the shogunate, Japan’s samurai rulers, did make occasional attempts to ban shunga, but these were never sustained. After 1722 printed shunga was technically illegal, but widely tolerated in practice. In 1824, Lord Matsura Seizan complained in his diary that people thought nothing of swapping small erotic pictures as New Year greetings, producing exquisitely printed examples from out of the sleeves of their kimono. Erotic books and prints seem to have been fairly openly available in bookshops and widely distributed to homes by commercial lending libraries that were never regulated.

There was no strong sense in Edo Japan of sex as ‘sinful’, certainly not according to the native beliefs we now call Shintō, which traced the mythical origins of the Japanese islands and the imperial lineage to the conjugation between the deities Izanagi and Izanami, who learned the techniques of lovemaking by watching the twitching tail of a wagtail. Traditionally there was widespread veneration in rural areas of representations of the organs of both sexes, which were seen as a source of fertility and procreation and thought to have the power to ward off evil. Such folk beliefs were maintained to a degree as farmers became city-dwellers. These relatively relaxed attitudes towards sex changed quite rapidly and radically in the late 19th century, when they came into collision with Japan’s mission to modernise in accord with the prevailing moralities of Europe and the USA. For most of the 20th century, shunga was taboo in Japan and widely suppressed.

It was produced in the relatively discreet formats of printed books and painted handscrolls, to be enjoyed with intimate friends or sexual partners. So why make it the focus of a large public exhibition in a major world museum? Edo-period Japan enjoyed a sustained period of peace for some 250 years, which must be something of a record in world history. There was a rapid development of commercial and consumer culture, particularly in the three large cities of Edo (modern Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka with their thriving publishing industries. Huge quantities of shungaaccumulated, produced by nearly all the leading popular artists of the day, resulting in one of the great traditions of pre-modern erotic art to have survived anywhere in the world. Recent estimates put the total number of published erotic titles produced during the period at around 2000, an average of about eight works a year, each produced in hundreds or thousands of copies. At the very least, then, this was a major phenomenon within Edo culture, and the study of shunga provides fascinating insights not only into prevailing attitudes towards sex and sexuality but into many other aspects of society as well.

One strong tendency as the Edo period progressed was for shunga to parody other competing genres of commercial publications, exploiting its semi-legal – and therefore largely unregulated – status to advantage. This led, for example, to some hilarious spoof versions of serious Confucian educational books aimed at women. In place of the standard solemn exhortations always to obey fathers and husbands, these shunga parodies offer much more human encouragement to wives to sustain their marriages by enjoying a fulfilled sex life with their husbands. More nuanced perspectives on female identities during the period are revealed.

It turns out that the British Museum has one of the great world collections of shunga. The earliest examples were probably acquired in 1865, as part of the large collection of world erotic artefacts donated by George Witt and promptly locked away in the ‘Secretum’. We know that several works bequeathed in 1972 by Gerald Festus Kelly, a president of the Royal Academy, had formerly belonged to the painters John Singer Sargent, Philip Wilson Steer and John Wheatley. But otherwise, the source of the BM’s masterpiece series such as Kiyonaga’s Handscroll for the sleeve of c.1785 and Utamaro’s Poem of the Pillow of 1788 remains an intriguing mystery.

Exactly 400 years ago, in 1613, Shogun Ieyasu granted trading rights to Captain John Saris, who was representing the English East India Company and King James I/VI. Among the trade goods Saris brought back to London and displayed at the Royal Exchange, were ‘lascivious’ pictures, now presumed to have been Japanese shunga. These were promptly burned by outraged Company officials. Destroyed in 1615, locked away in 1865, shunga was finally publicly displayed for the first time in London in 1973 as part of a general exhibition of ukiyo-e prints organised by the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1995, the British Museum included all the major shunga works by Utamaro in its special monograph exhibition of that artist. Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art is the first comprehensive exhibition to focus in detail on the beauty and humour of shunga, setting this fascinating art form in its historical and cultural context.

This article was first published in the British Museum Magazine.


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