Style & Then Some

Porn on parchment: Shunga exhibition at the British Museum

Adding to its already renowned collection of global artefacts from across history, the British Museum opened its newest exhibition this month, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art. Scattered across the Metro, Evening Standard and Time Out magazine, the collection of 17th, 18th and 19th century sketches and prints have received rave reviews. The Times calls it ‘revelatory’ – and after attending the exhibition on Friday night, I wholeheartedly agree.

Sex, Japan, Shunga, British Museum, 2013, history

The collection comprises of a number of scrolls, books and parchment featuring love-making at its most explicit. And in truth it does take some adjusting to; you are instantly made aware of your Westernised internal censor, and the inherent belief in the privacy of sexual exploits. The sketches are graphic, exaggerated and frequently comical, portraying a wincingly warts-and-all understanding of sex, which is actually quite refreshing. Many of the pieces form triptychs or storyboards, depicting the story of forbidden love (usually in gardens – supposedly the blossoms and trees suggest fertility and new life), mistaken identity or the intimacy of marriage.

Produced in the period between 1600 and 1900 in Japan before eventually being curbed for its indecency, the Shunga genre is unusual in both its history and context. It represents a culture completely cut off from the rest of the world, large proportions of which were starkly prudish during this era. Japan at this time was remarkably liberal in sexual habit, and sex had little sinful association. Shunga pieces was traded and exchanged, willy-nilly (for want of a better word), much as we do with postcards today. Their storytelling function brought alive ancient haikus and legends of great love stories and war heroes. But for all its poetry, Shunga does not shy away from its ultimate purpose – pure, unadulterated eroticism.

It’s interesting to see how slapdash the actual pictures are; the human body is comprised of a few disproportionate sketches and faces are incredibly rudimentary. Clothes and fabrics feature widely and are drawn in great detail, to symbolise social status, and it is here amongst many places that we see a differentiation between Western and Eastern understandings of sex; where our sex is blatant, crude, no clothes-anonymity in the bedroom, Shunga shows the intimacy of partial clothing, the luxury and wealth alongside the pleasure of sex, as if it were simply another part of the daily routine.

Sex, Japan, Shunga, British Museum, 2013, history

As a whole, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure is not conventionally enjoyable – there are only so many carefully illustrated phalluses one can look at in one go – but it is endlessly fascinating, and the captions presented alongside the pictures are comprehensive and thought-provoking. Some pieces are very tame, simply showing a couple cuddling post-coitus. Some are socially risqué, featuring high born men and prostitutes, or priests and nuns. And some are just plain weird (highlights include the ‘priest in the bag’ or ‘octopus’). As an unusual snapshot of time that stops you, shocks you and makes you react, Shunga is well worth a visit. Just maybe leave your grandma at home for this one.

Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art is open to the public until 5th January 2014. For more information and to book tickets, visit the British Museum Website.

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3 comments on “Porn on parchment: Shunga exhibition at the British Museum

  1. maryshoobridge
    November 1, 2013

    Glad you enjoyed the exhibition – I did too. It was a feast for the eyes. And I wouldn’t hesitate to take my grandmother!

  2. katiemccraw
    November 4, 2013

    how much time do I need to see this exhibition? thanks

    • oliviasleet
      November 7, 2013

      Hi Katie – probably allow about 45 minutes to browse!

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2013 by in And Then Some and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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