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Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Shocking Shunga? Review: 'Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art' at The British Museum

The British Museum's latest prints and drawings exhibition ‘Shunga: Sex and Humour in Japanese Art’ appears to be their most explicit exhibition since their opening in 1753. It seems to be another blockbuster from the leading Museum but is the exhibition as exciting as it's hype?


Some very careful marketing going on for an exhibition with an age limit. 

A phenomenon of early modern Japan, Shunga flouted the strict Confucian laws of virtue and ethics with the art movements sexually explicit paintings, prints and illustrated books.  Although Japan was no sex party during the period, Shunga was openly part of everyday life. Reaching out to  the working and middle classes the works provided a light hearted and often bizarre instruction manual to new brides on their wedding day for centuries. However as the ‘spring pictures’ depicted enlarged genitalia and same sex copulation it’s no surprise that with the westernisation of Japan in the twentieth century that the beautiful, amusing and educational images became taboo and soon disappeared.

Even once the British Museum acquired some of the thousands of images their graphic content was deemed so shocking that they continued to be hidden from the Western world. Rumour dictates that Shunga images were stored in a locked secretarum along with other ‘obsence’ artifacts until the twenty- first century when they were dispersed and undoubtedly enjoyed across the departments. A very different story to the Wellcome Collection’s housing at the Science Museum where Dildos are proudly exhibited in storage and Chinese sex figurines lay in glass fronted cases – the Wellcome could certainly do a very shocking exhibition with their haul. 

Is Shunga as shocking now? The ornate pictures can certainly be seen as some sort of early modern pornography but now when we visit museums that often show us historic sex toys and paintings of passionate clinches, the exaggerated genitalia definitely brings more humourous edge and proves  that size has always mattered! I was relieved to see a continuous positive approach to sex throughout the exhibition. Women are encouraged to be sexual (even with  an octopus) and same sex copulation is acceptable. It’s clear to see that these images influenced Toulouse Lautrec and his positive sexualisation of women in his notorious 'moulin rouge' paintings.



Unfortunately the exhibition layout failed to magnify the shocking elements of the work and severely lacked in objects to accompany the images and fill the large space. The  exhibition only features a very small spattering of carved copulating ivory figurines, and a couple of stunning Kimonos. Although the works are well presented in retro cabinets lining the walls it’s this layout that leads to the downfall of this exhibition and the majority of British Museum blockbusters: TOO MANY PEOPLE!  Any excitement and shock is almost instantaneously lost as crowds gather and begin to form queues around the glass.  Resulting in shocked gasps, giggles and excited chatter ruining the scandalous effects for the next visitor, fortunately for a few exaggerated illustrations it was possible to see a few phallas' over a chuckling shoulder. 



But when I finally got to see all of the naughty bits and pieces I was giggling too, not because of how shockingly accentuated the penis’ and vulva's are but because they depict strange and hilarious situations. For example one piece of Shunga shows men competing in a phallic contest and ‘fart battle’, bizarrely judged by court officials.

The shock factor may disappear with the crowd but Shunga is a strong, beautiful art that must not go back into the secretarum. So get your elbows out, battle the crowd and see the British Museum’s latest prints and drawings show. 








Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art' is open until 5th January 2014. Book tickets here: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/shunga.aspx

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