Revealing More: The British Museum's Shunga Exhibition

British Museum
Sep 22, 2013 8:53PM

Tim Clark, Head of the Japanese Section, Department of Asia, The British Museum

The sexually explicit nature of the shunga works are shocking, but also extremely beautiful, humorous, and tender. Although shunga invents a fantasy world of pleasure, it also, somewhat paradoxically, keeps referring back to everyday life. The lovers portrayed are most married couples, dating teens or cheating spouses. They even chat to each other in funny and completely uninhibited ways as they are having sex. Female sexuality is a given and mutual pleasure is the ideal. Male-male sex is depicted according to accepted social conventions of a mature active partner with a passive youth. Surprisingly, there is little depiction of the extensive world of commercial sex that had grown up in Japanese cities, foremost Edo (modern Tokyo).

Although shunga has been included in quite a few exhibitions in the UK since the 1970s, this is the first time the subject has been treated comprehensively in a public exhibition so it is extremely significant. As a result of our surveys around the world, conducted with SOAS (Univ. of London) and Japanese research partners, we have been able to include many works not previously known; also some works that have never been shown before, though they have been in the Witt Collection at the British Museum for some 150 years.

Perhaps for the first time ever, this exhibition brings together fine examples of the four famous subjects from medieval Japanese narrative painting that have sexual content. These long handscroll paintings, some with ribald texts, are Phallic Contest and Fart BattleScroll of AcolytesTale of the Brushwood Fence and The Priest in the Bag. These are rather different from what came to be standard shunga works in the Edo period (1600-1868) -- that is, a painted sequence of twelve unrelated sexual couplings, or sets of prints or printed books with illustrations that bring together a compendium of different kinds of sexual scenario. The exhibition suggests that one catalyst for the rather sudden change from narrative to separate scenes around 1600 may have been the importation into Japan of sexually explicit prints from late Ming China.

The British Museum: Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art. On view October 3, 2013 to January 5, 2014.

Explore Shunga in The British Museum's Collection Online.

British Museum