British Museum: Shunga - Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art (until 5th January 2014)

Despite the contemporary protest that aesthetic value is not always essential in art, it is not often that I see an exhibition where the pedagogical value is higher than the aesthetic. This was exactly what I found at the current Shunga exhibition at the British Museum, WC1. It is asserted immediately, by its curator, Timothy Clark, that the collection sets out to convey something that enjoys a current 'taboo' status, yet is an integral part of ancient, and to an extent current, Japanese culture.

'Sex and Pleasure' as a title does suggest an adult exhibition, and as a family institution, the British Museum are careful to limit entry by advising parental guidance for a younger audience. However, what we find is a refreshing take on such a topic. Its opening citation challenges us 'to reconsider mutually exclusive categories of 'art' versus 'pornography' that evolved in the West'. As is clearly conveyed, the spiritual Japanese attitude celebrated procreation (amusingly by sending religious temples wooden phallic models) and sexual harmony, which, in comparison to the modern Western obsession with cheap sexualisation, makes the exhibition more intriguing and relevant.

Along with parallels, exhibitions about the East become fascinating when we are able to see how various cultures, including our own, interlink. Mamaro's 'Needlework' shows the Japanese male fantasy of elegant, sensual women, but in a typical, archaic woman's role, therefore 'eroticising the everyday'. I must admit, this is a phrase, coined within the exhibition, that I do enjoy, as it is applicable to the age-old fantasy of women being a sex object ready to service the daily needs of men.

By referring to all the social and cultural points of interest, this does not mean that I am overlooking the potent sexual nature of the drawings. The links and influences between East and West are shown through the display of Italian Renaissance artist, Giulio Romano, called 'Love of the Gods'. In no uncertain terms, the image has been dissected in that parts are shown merely in isolation, such as a woman's head, or a naked thrusting torso. This is a noteworthy piece, as it is stated that it was in fact banned by Pope Clement VIII, as such explicit work was not common or accepted in Europe at the time; instead eroticism was 'expressed through mythology and the nude'.

The curation of the exhibition is done in such a way that the viewer often finds themself overwhelmed by a vast number of pieces in a short physical space, many of which are somewhat similar. This is what I refer to when I stated at the beginning of the post about the pedagogical value and interest being higher than that of the aesthetic. The small, quirky and amusing details, such as a monk hiding in a bag before having intercourse with a nun, are often more interesting and diverse than the shunga itself. A flaw in the exhibition is that, covering material from 1600-present, we find that a large proportion contains similar work, which can become slightly tedious. However the British Museum have ensured that they include artefacts such as kimonos, to provide a human dimension and a break from the drawings.

Whether or not shunga is to the individual's personal preference, its history is undeniably interesting and certainly adds to the experience of the collection. Therefore learning that shunga was made illegal in 1722 makes the viewer wonder about its uses. The lack of stringency in upholding this ban also raises questions on how the work was adapted to manipulate the law. As we discover that Japan resumed its international trade in 1859, we begin to recognise the kitsch element of traditional Japanese art that we are all familiar with: primarily flowers, oceans and kimono drawings.

The exhibition as a whole is successful in showing a different side to the two archetypal Japanese styles that are often portrayed: the Tokyo Pop of the contemporary and the traditional - mainly ceramics and textiles. Challenging modern perceptions while entertaining the viewer is a concept that many institutions, particularly large, national ones such as the British Museum, attempt to achieve but ultimately fail. However, by specialising so intensely on one nation's genre of art and its cultural repercussions, this is made possible. The choice to branch into the twentieth century and show how artists such as Picasso have continued and interpreted the ideas of shunga ensures that a modern audience is content with 'Shunga - Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art'.

Sode no maki (Handscroll for the sleeve) by Torii Kiyonaga
(picture courtesy of the British Museum)

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