LONDON—Make no mistake, the “Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art” exhibit that runs today through January 5 at the British Museum may include works that feature women being fellated by a giant octopus, but don't think about considering it porn. The art form is actually called shunga—the Japanese word for sexually explicit art—and comes with a bona fide pedigree that extends centuries into Japan’s rich past.
“Produced from 1600 to 1900 and banned in Japan for much of the 20th century, these explicit and beautifully detailed erotic paintings, prints and books inspired Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsley, Rodin and Picasso,” reads a description of the exhibit on the British Museum website.
“Mostly created by the artists of the ukiyo-e or ‘floating world’ school … [the works] appealed to all classes in Japan for almost 300 years, and to men and women alike,” continues the description. “Frequently tender and humorous, they celebrate sexual pleasure in all its forms in brilliantly colored paintings and prints, culminating with beautiful and explicit works by iconic artists Utamaro, Hokusai and Kunisada.”
The exhibit contains more than 150 works of shunga, but its curator remains concerned that visitors will think they are something other than art. “Today shunga gets treated like obscene pornography,” Timothy Clark explained to ryot.org. “People who haven’t seen shunga before will be surprised by how explicit it can be. But this is sexually explicit art, not pornography, produced to exactly the same technical perfection as art in other formats by the same people.”
What he means, of course, is that the proper response to such works should be above the neck rather than below the belt, though it’s safe to assume no one will be checking to make sure. (However, we are talking about Britain so one cannot be absolutely sure.)
Image: The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, an 1814 work of art by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, courtesy of the British Museum.