The recent Shunga exhibition, which I managed to see in its last week, was almost a victim of its own success. The galleries were utterly packed, as though we had all come to see a display of Leonardo drawings, and the show was sold out for the rest of the day. As I pored over print after print of sex acts – generally very graphic, the organs very big and very prominent – I found myself all too conscious of the mass of visitors, and the sense that this was very clearly not how the images were meant to be viewed. That said, I did enjoy discovering shunga by artists that I knew from their less explicit work: Hishikawa Moronobu, Suzuki Harunobu, Torii Kiyonaga. I should also commend the labeling: by translating the sometimes hilarious Japanese inscriptions, the curators conveyed the importance of the written word in constructing the erotic experience.
Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese Art
British Museum, London
3 October 2013 to 5 January 2014 (now closed)
Above: Katsukawa Shuncho, Twelfth Month from Koshoku sue juniko (Erotic Illustrations for the Twelve Months), c. 1788 (detail). Colour woodblock print. Height c. 25.8; width c. 37.3 cm. International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, Kyoto. Image at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2013/shunga/about.aspx#4. The young man says, "If I stay on until morning, my old man will give me an earful. Besides, tomorrow is year-end cleaning." The courtesan says, "Come on, stop joking about and put it in quick. It's snowing even more, so stay on tomorrow."