Art Art and Design Art Exhibition English

The Pleasures of Shunga

Tea ceremonies, bullet trains arriving to the exact second, intricately dressed, immaculate geisha and the importance of keeping face: these common images of Japan conjure up the notion of a highly-controlled and conservative society. Graphic images of enormous penises and a woman being pleasured by an octopus are not, perhaps, what you might expect. And indeed for the last century and a half the explicit art of shunga, or ‘spring pictures’ has been taboo in Japan- yet this only came about once the country began to absorb Western cultural influences.

Kinoe no komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day (or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills)). Katsushika Hokusai, 1814. Woodblock print, 18.9 x 26.6 cm. British Museum, London.
Kinoe no komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day (or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills)).
Katsushika Hokusai, 1814.
Woodblock print, 18.9 x 26.6 cm.
British Museum, London.

Before the late-19th century, the Japanese did not share the dominant Western idea that fine art and pornography were very separate things, with different purposes, and that the latter was indecent and offensive and should be kept hidden away. In Japan, shunga was a part of everyday life, enjoyed by all sectors of society and by men and women alike. These sexually-explicit prints, paintings and illustrated books were carried around, scrolls tucked into sleeves, and were proudly shown off in homes. Samurai often carried shunga into battle as talismans for protection. Also known as warai-e, or ‘laughter pictures’, these images are often humorous, addressing the funny side of sex. In one colourful print we see a pair of lovers hiding under a mosquito net during a thunderstorm- along with her cuckolded husband, looking distinctly (and unsurprisingly) fed up.

Shunga print showing lovers and cuckolded husband hiding under a mosquito net during a thunderstorm (indicated by the stylized pattern entering through the window). In the style of Suzuki Harunobu, c.1769-1770. Colour woodblock print, 18.7 x 24.8 cm. British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Shunga print showing lovers and cuckolded husband hiding under a mosquito net during a thunderstorm (indicated by the stylized pattern entering through the window).
In the style of Suzuki Harunobu, c.1769-1770.
Colour woodblock print, 18.7 x 24.8 cm.
British Museum, London.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Seen from a Western perspective, shunga may at first appear little different from our prolific images of women portrayed as objects of desire. Yet shunga was made for men and women alike, and shows both of their pursuits of pleasure, as well as images of homosexual love (and the occasional tryst involving an animal –such as the aforementioned octopus). Sex in all its forms is shown as a source of enjoyment, rather than shame. This shame only began to be associated with sex and shunga when Japan decided to ‘modernise’ its society in order to become a part of the international community. Still taboo in Japan even today, only now are we starting to see more of this beautiful, uninhibited art.

The British Museum has one of the world’s greatest collections of shunga and is now offering us the chance to see it in its new exhibition, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art (on until 5 January).  Watch its curator, Tim Clark, introduce the exhibition here: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/shunga/about.aspx. Or to read more about the works of the greatest Japanese shunga artists, check out our books on Hokusai and Utamaro.

G.A.