Shunga art

The dream of the fisherman's wife, Hokusai (Google image)

Yesterday I visited the shunga art exhibition at the British Museum and also the Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It was one of those days when I had some time off and two sets of friends were visiting town. So I spent the morning with the first set and we all decided to go to see the shunga exhibition. After lunch and after saying goodbye to these friends, I met my other friend, visiting London on business and finally able to leave work a little earlier. So we went again to see the shunga exhibition , as he also wanted to see it and then we went to the V&A, where, apart from seeing the Chinese paintings, we were also treated to a catwalk show. The V&A is open until 10 pm on a Friday and you can have a glass of wine, dance to music, go out into the magnificent courtyard, with a pond surrounded by an installation and view the magnificent building that is the V&A museum.

The V&A at night
But I digress. It is the shunga exhibition I wanted to talk about, because it really challenges our views of what is pornography.
Shunga: sex and humour in Japanese art 1600-1900 is an exhibition curated by Tim Clarke in partnership with several international scholars of Japanese art. The name shunga, the curators tell us,  means 'spring' and it refers to sexually explicit paintings, prints, and illustrated books with texts: "early modern Japan was certainly not a sex-paradise; however, the values promoted in shunga are generally positive towards sexual pleasure for all participants".
At various times shunga art was banned or censored but overall it continued to thrive until the 20th century. In contemporary times there are signs of a strong influence of shunga on manga.
Of course, in the early part of the 20th century shunga had an impact of western art through Japonisme and the exhibition has a few art works by Picasso, Toulouse -Lautrec  and Beardsley which show a strong affinity with shunga.
The first thing that strikes the visitor is the explicit views of both male and female genitalia, often rendered in unrealistic size. There are exquisite prints and silk scrolls depicting narratives, with couples shown in amorous embraces, and the whole scene is full of details, including the context, often with cherry blossoms and fabrics with complex patterns.
Once one gets used to the conventions of the style - big vulva and phalluses - which have no real counterpart in Western art, one also begins to appreciate that there is a real connectedness between the people involved in the act, a far cry from the objectification that characterises pornography as we know it. The colours are exquisite and the scenes are often accompanied by humorous dialogues between the men and women.
My favourite piece is the one depicting a woman dreaming of having intercourse with a giant octopus, by Hokusai. A few years ago I worked on my own rendition of it, thanks to photographer Terry Slater

I certainly thought that the visit to the British Museum was time well spent. The friend I went with the second time round, a competent amateur photographer, whose work has on occasion explored erotica, remarked that if we were to translate such images into photography most people would regard them as pornography. Yes and no. Photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki seem to have imbued the spirit of shunga and I do not think his work is viewed as pornographic, though it does picture genitalia in a very explicit way.
Last year model and writer Roswell Ivory (currently engaged in fighting for a very worthy cause, read all about it in her blog) authored a piece for the art blog Univers d'Artistes which tackles the idea of genital photography. There was no mention of Japanese shunga nor Japanese photography in that excellent feature but I feel it complements this post.
I would love to hear from people who have seen the exhibition, about their reactions.


  1. I agree with you about the recognition of relationship. It may be something to do with not feeling an obligation to pretend that sex does not exist. If you do feel that, as the British seem to have done in the fairly recent past, then the only thing that is likely to get emphasized in porn is the sex, because it is the one thing not acknowledged elsewhere. (I am, however, not sure what Japanese attitudes to sex in general were at the relevant times. Maybe they were as bad as the British, in which case we would need some other explanation.)

    An interesting parallel at the British Museum was the Pompeii exhibition, in which the exhibits showed, and the labels explained, that portrayals of sex were just accepted and put up around the house. I got the same sense there, that the frescoes were not just about the sex.

    There is a smaller exhibition of Japanese erotic art on at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge until 12 January:

    The pictures in this one do emphasise relationships rather more, and genitalia rather less, than the British Museum exhibition.

  2. I seem to remember that Bob Carlos Clarke made a photograph of a vagina that was interesting and novel. It was I think done at the same time as his series of photographs of cutlery. I have found it interesting that television and radio are only in the last few years acknowledging the existence of the vagina in general reporting and colloquial speech.
    Artists have been showing genitalia for a long time, don't forget georgia o'keefe, and more recently Jamie McCartney has been exhibiting his 'great wall of vagina' an extraordinary piece, comprising 400 plaster casts of fanny!

    Best to you Alex,



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