Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art @ British Museum

Fear of sex in the Western tradition

The Positions (I Modi or The Sixteen Pleasures) a 16th century Italian book of engravings of various sexual positions, was for a long time notorious for being the most sexually explicit book in the tradition of European art. It was banned by the Pope in 1524 and its author, Raimondo, imprisoned. Discouraged by this example and the repressive laws of their various countries, few European artists made sexually explicit images until the dawn of the modern age – with notable pioneers including Aubrey Beardsley in the 1890s and Egon Schiele in the 1910s.

This wasn’t a consequence of one Pope’s diktat, but because fear of the body as one of the chief enemies of godliness, of holiness, of the individual’s hopes of getting to heaven, is deeply embedded in the Christian traditions which frame our culture. From the Church Fathers down to the 4th century theologian Augustine, the earliest Christian thinkers were repelled by the human body. They sought martyrdom as quickly as possible, or tried to starve and subjugate the bodies which they saw as the enemy of their immortal souls. The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731) is a list of the holy men of Ireland and Britain, all of whom starved or scourged their bodies to achieve holiness.

The exhibition

This stunning exhibition at the British Museum is a comprehensive overview of the amazingly graphic and explicitly sexual imagery produced in Japan between 1650 and 1900, known as shunga art. Shunga are beautifully crafted paintings of sexually explicit images of great delicacy and refinement, usually created in sets of 12. During that period, virtually all artists in the Japanese tradition were expected to produce shunga.

The sequence of 12 varied scenes could be taken as a guide to lovemaking or as an aid to stimulation, for solitary readers or for couples. Over the centuries, hundreds of artists made shunga images and the genre spawned scores of variations, including the comic, the satirical, the grotesque and so on.

Shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

A shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

The floating world

The earliest surviving examples come from the period 1600 to 1650. The high quality materials used in their creation indicate the artists were commissioned and patornised by the very richest in society. It wad during t his period, with the growth of cities, especially Edo, that the Samurai government presided over the growth of a so-called ‘floating world’ of pleasure-seeking, brothels and the immensely popular kabuki theatre. From around 1650 cheaper woodblock-printed shunga were produced in large quantities for townspeople, showing more ordinary folk in a wide variety of sexual activity, alongside the continuation of high quality painted items for aristocrats.

The exhibition covers all this and more, reaching back to earlier periods. Among the myths of Japan’s religion, Shinto, is the story of the Japanese gods of creation Izanagi and Izanami who learn lovemaking from a wagtail (!) and whose lovemaking produces the island of Japan itself.

I was riveted to read that Japan’s creation myths are recorded in histories dating from the 700s ie exactly contemporary with the struggle to bring Christianity to the illiterate Germanic pagan tribes of these islands which the Venerable Bede’s History describes.

Poem of the Pillow

Poem of the Pillow

There are 100 or more images and each one is labelled with detailed notes and an explanation of the artist, the date, the precise sub-tradition they were working in, the ways in which they were manipulating the genre. It is a lot to read and take in, a whole new world, an entirely new tradition.

Health, equality and homosexuality

The cumulative impression is that there was no Shame. Sex was for pleasure and for health. Some of the texts which accompany the images recommend sex as a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, to keep the heart and other organs functioning correctly, or as the key to eternal youth. In one image a man is stimulating a woman and catching the waterfall of her juices in a jar which he will later drink as the elixir of eternal youth.

And the Equality of Pleasure. Women are depicted as enjoying sex, as achieving climax, as being just as cheeky and naughty as the men. In some scenarios one or more women trick a visiting man to have sex with her or them. A man is conned into a sack from which his dangling penis protrudes so he can have sex with a succession of women, all shown with their very hairy vulvas exposed and without any hint of Western concealment or embarrassment.

Man with seven women

Man with seven women

And there’s a large amount of homosexuality – some lesbianism, but mostly a lot of men buggering each other. Again, despite our liberal times, I felt a frisson of concern or fear, at acts which in my lifetime were still completely illegal in Britain, being displayed so brazenly. But here they are, depicted openly, frankly and humorously. A scroll portrays with beautiful detail and humour, sex between Buddhist priests and their acolytes from the 1300s. Apparently it was known as the ‘way of youths’ or shudo.

The exhibition includes a medieval scroll in which a bathhouse full of men compare the sizes of their comically enlarged penises, which need tables to rest on. This is followed by a section where they compare farts in a contest. All reminiscent of Chaucer and Rabelais.

Gigantism

One of the most striking things throughout is the contrast between the perfectly white and perfectly unblemished skin of the Japanese figures, with their stylised eyes, noses and mouths, the cleanness and purity of line with which they are portrayed – and the exaggerated, donkey-size penises and violently red vulvas which they display. The figures are often shown in anatomically impossible poses to ensure the penis and vulva are blatant, the unmistakable core of the image.

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

After the initial shock wore off, after I became a little inured to so many penises and vulvas, I found myself noticing the beautiful kimonos and silk clothing of the protagonists, depicted in stylised folds and with loving attention to pattern and material. Also to the backdrops and settings, to the scrolls and wall hangings in the rooms, to the cherry trees outside with their immaculately rendered petals.

There was one whole type of books which started with sets of portraits of individuals, done with great elegance and solemnity, and which ended with big close-ups of their penis or vulva – the reader was expected to match the face with the genitals.

According to the wikipedia article on shunga ‘the genitalia is interpreted as a “second face,” expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by giri to conceal, and is therefore the same size as the head and placed unnaturally close to it by the awkward position.’

This is so far from Western ideas of decorum, or art, as to be quite bewildering, dazzling.

A brief history

Shunga existed in the Middle Ages, became widespread as high-class paintings in the 1600s, then as mass-produced woodcuts from the 1650s. There were attempts to ban them in the 1720s and periodically through the 1700s, but all indications are that they continued to circulate widely and be very popular. Only in the early 1900s, as Japan’s leaders embarked on a course of self-conscious modernisation, was shunga really systematically banned, and thereafter became a taboo genre for most of the 20th century.

It’s fascinating to see the influence of Western traditions intrude as Japan began opening up to the outside world from the 1860s onwards. Western Victorian gentleman begin to feature in the illustrations, with precisely the same engorged organs and hairy tufts as the Japanese, but wearing incongruously prim frock coats and hats.

The most regrettable western import is the total nude. All of the Japanese images portray their figures semi-dressed, with fabrics artfully falling away to reveal the genitalia, and the combination of lovingly depicted fabric with the raw genitals creates a wonderfully dreamy ‘floating world’ fantasy, a pornotopia of cost-free, riskless sexuality.

In the photographs which Westerners began to take in the late 19th century and which are exhibited here at the end of the exhibition, we see all too clearly the actual reality of Japanese women – prostitutes – stripped to the waist and exhibited like cattle. It’s impossible not to feel the heavy hand of Western sexual repression and its opposite – crude and exploitative pornography – crushing the delicacy and gorgeous detail of the native tradition.

Haiku

Many of the images were carefully designed to accommodate texts – poems, moral advice, spiritual quotes or jokes. Some of the shunga artists were also masters of haikus, the famous short verse form. Among many more explicit examples, one relatively restrained one caught my eye:

Onto his silent lap
she lowers
her eloquent hips

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (Hokusai)

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Hokusai)

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