Last Sunday, I attended the 'Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art' exhibition at the British Museum with my partner. It was Remembrance Sunday, a little after 11am and the exhibition was reassuringly and surprisingly busy. It was an eye-opener in every sense.
'Shunga' is used to describe a body of art works that were created in Japan between 1600 and 1900. They are essentially erotic illustrations and paintings depicting various sexual practices. Unlike most forms of later pornographic material, they are quite explicit. They are also delightfully imaginative. I also felt that they probably speak volumes about the culture that produced the works.
As I walked around the exhibition, my partner and I gazed at the various works and I was just as interested in the demographic of the visitors who had chosen this day of all days to embrace their desires and needs or those that they had overlooked as time passed. There were people of all age groups. I am sure that there were some children too but the acts of carnal desire etc would have meant little to them except providing some quite distinctive illustrations of their possible futures. So perhaps, there is an argument for taking children along to erotic art exhibitions if only to point out that there is nothing obscene about sex if it is consensual and you are over the age of consent? It also enables the parents or guardians to illustrate that the images offered in the media and indeed, by this exhibition are just that, representations of archaic acts that are simply repeated. The other people attending the exhibition included tourists who had clearly had this exhibition recommended to them or else had simply stumbled on this exhibition, having been led to the British Museum and had some time to use up prior to their afternoon visit somewhere else. Then there was the elderly couple of ladies who gazed at the images joking with each other.
I enjoyed the range of images on offer and the fact that they were available like many forms of explicit material discreetly and surreptitiously. The Japanese Government of the time did not condone the art form, although it was regularly marketed as an aid for newly wed couples. What intrigued me about the art works on offer was the range of stories depicted in these images, some suitably fantastical, woman being abducted by an Octopus and then enduring the sensation of said Mollusc performing some bizarre variation of cunnilingus on her. Then I noted, the detail of the backgrounds of the sexual acts. The attention to detail applied to the storage units and cooking utensils. Then as everyone noticed, it was interesting how many of the compositions included images of maids, babies and animals looking on as the respective couples continued their acts clearly not aware or else delighted that these willing and unwilling voyeurs were there to see the balletic exertions. One interesting fact came out of the exhibition that I feel needs to be aired. Apparently, Chinese art of the time depicted the male and female anatomy more realistically and to size. Japanese art from this period is about excess. Huge penises being the order of the day. One artwork playing up the 'fictional' penis competitions where men would measure up their members against each other. How little has changed over time and indeed, even between cultures.
A final point, the sexual acts on offer were many and varied. All sexual preferences were catered for. After all, these works were often commercial and where there's a demand, there must be a supply. Something for everyone in this closet industry.
I recommend this exhibition, particularly if you want to explore the delights of a form of art that does not need to hide its eroticism behind dark curtains. I can imagine school trips to this exhibition. Okay, maybe not but if you wish to see an influential style that inspired the likes of Picasso then you could not wish for a more thrilling couple of hours in an austere setting.
Barry Watt - 16th November 2013.