LONDON (Reuters) - Giant genitalia in action and ribald humor take center stage at a British Museum show of erotic art from feudal Japan that runs until next January.
The museum’s “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art” is one of three shows on across Britain dedicated to traditional Japanese erotica, pleasure and Kabuki theatre from 1600 to 1900.
The exhibitions at London’s British Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland include works by some of Japan’s most famous artists from the period, including Utamaro, Hiroshige and Kunisada.
The British Museum and the Fitzwilliam have opened recommended adult-only displays of Japanese shunga - erotic “Spring pictures” - exploring sex, love and humor in Japan through some 200 works including paintings, scrolls, sets of prints and illustrated books with texts.
“It’s up to people to make what they want of it, but when they become aware of the beauty and humor and humanity of it they’re quickly won over,” British Museum curator Tim Clark told Reuters on Monday.
In Edinburgh, the National Museum of Scotland has turned its eye on Kabuki, the popular form of all-male Japanese theatre combining drama, music, dancing and acrobatics, with 61 prints.
In conjunction with the London museum’s much bigger exhibition, Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam has opened: “The Night of Longing: Love and desire in Japanese prints.”
Fitzwilliam curator Craig Hartley told Reuters how the prints of courtesans, geishas, famous love stories and theatre show the art form’s celebrated place in exploring love, desire and pleasure in Japan’s otherwise rigidly controlled society during the feudal Edo and imperial restoration Meiji periods.
“It wasn’t frowned upon... There wasn’t any sense of sin or shame,” Hartley said.
In fact, shunga art on scrolls, prints and made into books could be used as a sex manual on wedding nights, for stimulation by young and middle-aged couples, was proudly displayed to visiting guests, and enjoyed equally by women as well as men.
Shunga prints even depict the creation myth that underpins Japan’s Shinto folk religion.
“They tell about how Japan was founded when two deities had sex,” Clark said. “From their union were created the islands of Japan, the other deities and the imperial family.”
The British Museum blockbuster warns visitors that its explicit material may offend some people and carries the tag “Parental guidance advised” on its website.
“We’re basically advising it’s probably not appropriate for under-16s,” Clark said.
The 170 or so works include painted scrolls, printed books, sets of color prints of couples making love in richly colored inks, some spattered with gold dust and gold leaf, others sparingly drawn. Clothing from the period and shunga’s influence on Western artists such as Pablo Picasso are also on display.
The show was packed with visitors who avoided catching your eye and occasionally made the kind of gentle throat-clearing noise signaling public awkwardness among the polite British middle classes.
But beyond the over-sized penises penetrating intricately drawn vaginas, there are tender moments of love, traditional stories brought to life, poetry, lewd jokes and affectionate humor celebrating love and pleasure in all its aspects.
Some of the masterpieces on display at the British Museum, including Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Poem of the Pillow” (1788) - one of the most celebrated shunga sets of all - show a wide variety of people engaged in love-making and emphasize the universality of sexual enjoyment.
Clark said the show’s curators hope the exhibition can be taken to Japan, where shunga played a central role until the country opened up to prurient Western cultures during the Meiji period (1868-1912), after cutting itself off from the outside world for more than two centuries.
The social changes that followed eventually led to a ban on displaying the art in public until the 1990s.
“It’s the hope of everybody in the project that the exhibition can be reconstituted in Japan,” Clark said.
Additional reporting by Ian MacKenzie in Edinburgh; Editing by Hugh Lawson