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A very odd exhibition takes place at the British Museum and it is called Shunga. The term ‘shunga’ refers to a genre of erotic imagery, often explicit and usually beautifully produced, exploring endless variations of love-making both male-female and same sex and extending to scenarios from the realms of fantasy. Images may also depict scenes of flirtation, arousal, foreplay and post coital relaxation. The subjects depicted are by and large the ordinary men and women of urban Japan, shown in everyday situations. It is this conflation of everydayness and extraordinary (for a Puritanistic Western eye) forms of sex that makes this show so interesting.

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The images were popular in Japan since 1600s to the late 1800s and they were a commercial product. The range of scenes depicted go from husband and wife to client and prostitute and are usually accompanied by a descriptive text which, more than usually, are linked to the thoughts of one of the participants involved in the action.

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One might immediately think of these images as an Early Modern Oriental form of porn but it should be born in mind that there in Early Modern Japan, sex was considered to be a natural part of human experience, to be explored, enjoyed and celebrated both for the pleasure but also for its associations to fertility. There is also a link to creativity and art because Yoshiwara was the only licensed pleasure quarter in Tokyo and formed a parallel world with its own particular culture, routine, and rituals where artists, authors, poests and scholars used to gather. The best houses were as much cultural salons as places for sexual encounters. This transforms this ‘porn’ into a privileged register of the way creativity was understood at the time.

From the point of view of the composition, the position of the characters is very balanced which is linked to the consensual aspect of the encounters. Another kind of balanced is given by the exaggerated size of both female and male organs. There is also an idea of wrapping the bodies with fabrics and clothing that plays with the ‘I show it to you- I don’t show it to you’ aspects of these images. I think this is an amazing show. Go!

At the British Museum
SHUNGA: EROTIC ART IN JAPAN