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