Shunga at the British Museum

Shunga at the British MuseumOkay, I confess – I saw the shunga exhibition at the British Museum weeks ago and I’ve been putting off writing about it. I expect you can guess why. On the one hand it’s a major exhibition of Japanese art in London -right up my street. On the other hand, it’s shunga – which translates literally as spring pictures but is in fact a euphemism for explicit erotic art. You see my problem.

So what can I tell you about it? Well, it’s well laid out, divided into large rooms showing early shunga, masters of shunga and so on. There’s a lot of pictures, well displayed and living up to the hype. But what caught my attention was the way the artists don’t just give us the detail of people having it off (though they certainly don’t shirk on that front), they use a range of devices to give their work variety and interest. I’m going to use some of the (very few) images in the exhibition that can be reproduced on a family blog to take a look at some of them.


The interest in fine fabrics is typically Japanese and the contrast between fabric and skin is often used to enhance the effectiveness of the picture. The great master of this is Kitagawa Utamaro, and the exhibition kicks off with his wonderful triptych of women sewing.

Utamaro - Women sewing

Here’s his Hour of the Rat with girls undressing, one kneeling and folding a kimono.

Utamaro - Hour of the RatBeauty

This tends to mean beautiful women rather than beautiful men. Again it’s Utamaro who’s in the lead here. Here’s his Fancy-free Type from Ten Physiognomies of Women:

Utamaro - Fancy-free typeAnd here he gives us a young woman who hardly ever gets to see her lover in Love that Rarely Meets – Anthology of Poems: The Love Section

Utamaro - Love that rarely meetsCourtesan of Edo, in outer garment decorated with ivy leaves, cherry blossom, fans and tasselled braids by Kaigetsudo Anchi.

Kaigetsudo Anchi - Edo CourtesanCelebrity

The citizens of old Edo were just as much suckers for a celebrity story as we are today. If you claimed that a famous actor like Danjuro VII was the owner of the intimate bits shown larger than life in a series of prints, it gave it an extra frisson. Here’s Danjuro VII as Goemon by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III):

Utagawa Kunisada - Danjuro VII

And this is the actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu I by Okumura Masanobu. He was so good-looking that the faces of Ichimatsu dolls are said to be modelled on him.

Okumura Masanobu - Sanogawa Ichimatsu I Romance

The most romantic thing in old Edo was the love suicide, where two lovers who could not be together in life died together, preferably by walking out into the snowy mountains and never returning.

Here’s Utamaro’s print of suicide lovers Osome and Hisamatsu, whispering behind the back of an old man reading a letter.

Utamaro - Osome and HisamatsuIn this painted scroll by Katsukawa Shun’ei a young woman lies dreaming of making love before committing suicide with her lover. The picture of her dream is also in the exhibition.

Katsukawa Shun'ei - Dreaming girlHumour

You’ve probably heard of The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, the first novel ever written. A parody of it, A Country Genji by a Fake Murasaki, illustrated by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) was a runaway best-seller in the mid nineteenth century, and Kunisada capitalised on it by producing thousands of Genji images, including a series of erotic prints. This non-erotic one comes from the series Lasting Impressions of a Late Genji.

Utagawa Kunisada - GenjiThe show is on until 5th January 2014. I hear it’s proving very popular. If you’re relaxed about looking at erotic art, that was meant to be viewed privately, in a public gallery, then this might be for you. Tickets are £7. Parental guidance is advised for under-sixteens.

There is a well-stocked bookshop if you want to take the pictures home to study in more detail.

British Museum shunga bookshopAll the images I’ve used (apart from the two photos) are © The Trustees of the British Museum.

18 thoughts on “Shunga at the British Museum

  1. Whatever reservations one might have about the content of an exhibition devoted to Shunga, I have to confess I would have been very disappointed if a blog devoted to Japanese culture were to ignore it, so thank you especially for this post :). I was actually in the British Museum on Sunday last, and did consider visiting the exhibition then, but I was pushed for time, and decided to leave it for another day. Actually, I think the last major exhibition of Japanese art I saw in London was the excellent Great Japan Exhibition (a couple of decades ago for sure!), but I will find time to visit this Shunga exhibition while it’s in London, and thanks again for this post :).


    • Thank you for your encouragement! 🙂 I did wonder how I was going to cover it but I agree with you, I couldn’t just ignore it. And it did give me a chance to share some beautiful prints by great masters like Utamaro, so it was definitely worth doing in the end.


  2. This made me giggle: “If you’re relaxed about looking at erotic art, that was meant to be viewed privately, in a public gallery, then this might be for you.” I’m really not, at the best of times, but the exhibition is really reasonably priced at £7 and so I might make the effort to go see it.


  3. I am sure you have censored the X-rated content from you blog, Fran. 🙂 This is the contradiction with the Japanese as a culture. Decorous as it is on the surface, the sexuality and violence, often expressed in art forms, are amazing. Bottom line, this is beautiful art!


  4. I am so pleased you decided to post about this exhibition which I can see has been tricky. I think the difficulty for blogging about art in general is that are some very controversial areas that need careful negotiation when you have a global readership with such varying sensibilities. I’ve not been able to get up to London to see this exhibition, did you think the more erotic work, say for Utamaro, was as balanced, restrained and aesthetically pleasing as his well-known woodblocks? Or do the themes disrupt and overwhelm particularly as the images were made to be viewed in a less public space?


    • Oh, tough question! I think a great artist like Utamaro is great whatever he depicts, but it’s very hard for the viewer to disregard the subject matter and concentrate on the artistic merit. So I think the themes do overwhelm, especially with several large rooms full of the same subject!


      • That’s very interesting. I did hear the reviewers say they thought the Fitzwilliam’s ‘Night of Longing’ exhibition worked better for the ‘intimate’ images because it is a much smaller show. According to their website their exhibition complements the BM’s. Perhaps in this case bigger is not always better and the curator’s got carried away with the sheer volume of works in their storerooms.


  5. Thanks for this post. As you say, it’s difficult to write about an exhibition on Shunga on a family/ work-friendly blog, so well done! I visited the exhibition yesterday, but was too awestruck by the beauty of the illustrations to blush at the subject matter. It was also a breath of fresh air to see art made in a culture uninhibited by the idea of reproduction being something shameful and guilt-ridden.


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