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Japanese erotica impresses and amuses at the British Museum

— December 2013

Associated media

Sugimura Jihei (active 1681–1703), Lovers under a quilt with phoenix design, untitled erotic picture, mid-1680s. Private collection, USA.

For two centuries Japan’s self-imposed isolation led it to develop an etiquette and behaviour surrounding sex distinctly different not just from that of the West but also from that of its nearest Asian neighbours. The British Museum, founded to show how different societies do things in different ways, tackles that approach in this show. Unsurprisingly, little archaeological evidence exists for who did what, which way up and with whom, but images survive, especially in Japan: their seductively engaging Shunga.

To the West Shunga was obscene, characterized as vile, though the French 19th-century writer, Edmond de Goncourt also noted its charm and humour:

The other day I bought some albums of Japanese obscenities. They delight me, amuse me, and charm my eyes, I look on them as being beyond obscenity, which is there, yet seems not to be there, and which I do not see, so completely does it disappear into fantasy…

Mainly associated with the ‘Floating World’ images of Edo (1600–1868) when prolific numbers of exquisite woodblock Shunga were produced, it developed earlier. In Japanese creation myths, Japan originates from the sexual congress of two deities, shown in Hiroshige’s  19th-century Deities Perform Music to Tempt the Sun Goddess. Early Shunga is preserved through copies but the exhibition includes a 15th-century scroll of a penis-measuring contest. Early Shunga was richly decorated and hand-painted scrolls or books, some images lustrously scattered with gold leaf. Costly to commission, equivalent in price to 300 litres of soya beans at the time, they were luxury items for courtiers and society’s upper echelons. Then, in the Edo Period, printed Shunga became available to other classes. By paying extra, customers could buy sets of woodblock prints brilliantly hand-coloured almost like the earlier specially commissioned hand-painted scroll paintings.

Encouraging sensual pleasure for all participants, these images were enjoyed by both sexes, young and old alike. Women’s sexual experience was likened to the seasons, characterized by four stages: initial nervousness, through liberation and maturity to final ripe satisfaction.

Discreet but not ‘under-the-counter’ Shunga was made by almost every major artist in Edo, Kyoto and Osaka: Moronobu, Hanbei, Jihei, Kiyonobu I, Masanobu, Sukenobu, Harunobu, Koryusai, Shigemasa, Kiyonaga, Shunsho, Shuncho, Utamaro (a fifth of whose output was sexually explicit), Eishi, Settei, who championed female sexual pleasure, Hokusai, Toyokuni I, Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Eisen. Like other genres, Shunga images were printed by master printmakers who lavished their skills on them. The choicest papers, the finest cut woodblock lines, richness of colour, embossing (Harunobu’s Snowball depicts snow on bamboo by embossing the paper) – all added sensuous tactility to the works.

Fabrics are important, adorning and framing the body, evoking elegance and sensuousness, a frisson from a flash of a red undergarment against pale skin.... Subscribers click here to read on and see more images.

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Reporting by Clare Finn

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