LONDON – The “most comprehensive” exhibition of “shunga” (Japanese erotic pictures) ever staged opened at the British Museum in London last week.
A total of 170 paintings, prints and book illustrations dating from 1600 to 1900 are being displayed until the beginning of next year.
Speaking to journalists, Timothy Clark, head of the museum’s Japan section, has said that shunga became something of a taboo in Japan in the late 19th and 20th centuries and so far no exhibition entirely devoted to this art form has been arranged in its homeland.
He hopes this large-scale display will reaffirm the importance of shunga in the art world and prompt Japan to stage some large exhibitions in the future.
Clark described the artworks, which have been loaned from Japan, the United States and Europe, as “extremely beautiful” showing both “humor” and “technical finesse.”
The exhibition has taken several years of preparation and involved academics in Britain and Japan.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, joked that while Europeans learned about the pleasures of sex through literature, the Japanese learned it “like no one else.”
Shunga (which translates as spring pictures) performed many functions. They provided erotic pleasure and humor as well as acting as a guide to sex.
Invariably explicit, the pictures usually depict men and women enjoying sexual relations and some of the images show prostitutes entertaining their clients.
The images usually portray an idealized image of sex. Some of the pictures were designed to lampoon Japan’s ruling classes.
Shunga was technically banned at one point, but that did not stop erotic prints being published and sold.
For the first time in its history, the British Museum has had to impose an age restriction on visitors to the show. Anyone under the age of 16 will need to be accompanied by a parent.
The exhibition contains shunga by some of Japan’s greatest artists, including Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai.
Erotic Japanese art was heavily suppressed in Japan from the 1870s onward as part of a process of cultural modernization that imported many Western moral values.
Only in the last 20 years has it been possible to publish uncensored examples of shunga in Japan, according to Clark.