Thousands of ‘spring pictures’ or shunga, art were produced in Japan between 1600-1900. Now the British Museum has compiled a comprehensive exhibition of this sexually explicit work. It is the first of its kind in the UK to examine the often tender, funny, beautiful and undoubtedly accomplished shunga art that was produced by some of the masters of Japanese art, including Utamaro and Hokusai.
The exhibition is drawn from collections in the UK, Japan, Europe and USA and will feature some 170 works including paintings, sets of prints and illustrated books with text. Shunga is in some ways a unique phenomenon in pre-modern world culture, in terms of the quantity, the quality and the nature of the art that was produced. The exhibition explores key questions about what is shunga, how it circulated and to whom, and why was it produced. In particular it begins to establish the social and cultural contexts for sex art in Japan and aims to reaffirm the importance of shunga in Japanese art history.
Shunga were mostly produced within the popular school known as ‘pictures of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e), by celebrated artists such as Hishikawa Moronobu (died 1694), Kitagawa Utamaro (died 1806) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Earlier, medieval narrative art in Japan had already mixed themes of sex and humour. Luxurious shunga paintings were also produced for ruling class patrons by traditional artists such as members of the Kano school, sometimes influenced by Chinese examples. This was very different from the situation in contemporary Europe, where religious bans and prevailing morality enforced an absolute division between ‘art’ and ‘pornography’.
It is true that official life in this period was governed by strict Confucian laws, but private life was less controlled. Banned after 1722, but rarely suppressed in practice, shunga publications flourished on the boundaries between these two worlds, even critiquing officialdom on occasion. Paintings were never the object of censorship, and national networks of commercial lending-libraries, the main means of distribution for shunga books, were not regulated.
Early modern Japan was certainly not a sex-paradise. Confucian ethics that focused on duty and restraint were promoted in education for all classes, and laws on adultery, were severe. There were also many class and gender inequalities, and a large and exploitative commercial sex industry (the ‘pleasure quarters’). However, the values promoted in shunga are generally positive towards sexual pleasure for all participants: in one memorable colour print from the series Erotic Illustrations for the Twelve Months of c. 1788 by Katsukawa Shuncho (worked 1780s-1790s), for instance, a husband and wife enjoy lovemaking at a window in mid-summer, to the cry of a cuckoo. Women’s sexuality was readily acknowledged and male-male sex recognised in particular social contexts. Although men were the main producers and consumers, it is clear that women also were an important audience; the custom of presenting shunga to women in a marriage trousseau seems to have been common, and some works seem to have been created more for women than for men. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, shunga was all but removed from popular and scholarly memory in Japan and became taboo. Ironically, it was just at this time that shunga was being discovered and enthusiastically collected by European and US artists such as Lautrec, Beardsley, Sargent and Picasso. The British Museum acquired its first shunga prints as part of the George Witt Collection in 1865 and now has one of the best collections outside of Japan.
The British Museum has long been committed to displaying the best of Japanese art and culture. In 1995 the Museum staged the exhibition The Passionate Art of Utamaro, which included all of the great shunga works by that artist. Many other major special Japan-related exhibitions have been presented at the BM on such themes as Rimpa art (1998), Shinto (2001), Kazari (2003), Kabuki Heroes (2005), Crafting Beauty (2007), Dogu (2009), as well as a complete re-installation since 2006 of the Museum’s Japanese collections in the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries, Japan from prehistory to the present. Since 2005 one Japan-related ‘Objects in Focus’ display has been presented each year in Room Three, the Asahi Shimbun display series, including Manga, Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ and Jomon prehistoric ‘flame’ pots.
Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art
3 October 2013 – 5 January 2014 Room 90-91, admission charge Parental guidance advised for visitors under 16 years.