Erotic Japanese prints at The British Museum
Last week I had the chance to visit the British Museum’s exhibition of shunga, which translates as the rather euphemistic “Spring paintings”: Japanese erotic prints and books from the medieval period up to the turn of the twentieth century. So it’s Spring as in sap rising, if you know what I mean.
Given the enduring popularity at this blog of James Joyce’s bum letters and the number of people who come here trying to find out (in English) what the octopus is saying in Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, I thought some of you
perverts scholars may be interested to hear a bit about the exhibition. It’s worth a visit if you can get to London and you’re into Japanese culture and/or smutty pictures; therein lies one of the unintentionally funny things about it. Yes, every single day at the British Museum hundreds of respectable middle class people are spending a hour or more scrutinising vintage porn with no holds barred depictions of what goes where. I suspect many of them would say (like the complacent wife in Airplane!) that Jim never looks at porn when he’s at home, and many of them are Telegraph readers or Guardianistas who’d probably assert that pornography is demeaning and sordid. Yet here they are, earnestly checking out pictures of famous actors’ penises… albeit famous actors’ penises from over a century ago. It’s all strangely un-arousing anyway, at least to me.
There are also some inadvertently amusing pseudo-scholarly captions such as “the unusually large size of the colour print serves to accomodate the orgy”. Er, yes… it does. The print in question (circa 1785) shows a travelling salesman being set upon by six housewives who in true pornographic style are all absolutely gagging for it, proving that where (heterosexual/heteronormative male) sexual fantasies are concerned, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Complaints about pornography being unrealistic and damaging to the body images of “real” people are also nothing new. In 1254 a chap called Tachibana no Narisue wrote that “the old [shunga] masters depict the size of the thing far too large … If it were depicted actual size there would be nothing of interest. For that reason, don’t we say art is fantasy?”
If you’re on the front page this post has some rather explicit images and text after the “continue reading” link, so NSFW unless you work at a Japanese vendor of sexy prints during the Edo era, OK?
The feeling of being entwined by eight legs
At the time of writing my article about the (so-called) Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is the second most popular on the site, following James Joyce’s joy of bumsex at number one of course. That article provides a translation of the text filling the space around the images; the exhibition includes the print and offers an alternative translation which is credited to Danielle Talerico. I have to say it seems a bit literal, not as elegant as and considerably less complete than the previous one, but for what it’s worth, here it is:
Octopus: Wondering when, when to do the abduction, but today is the day. At last she’s captured. Even so, this is a plump, good pussy.
Diver: The hateful octopus, fu fu fu fu… rather aa, aa… sucking on the surface of the inner mouth of my womb until I’m breathless, aa, eee, I’m coming!
Octopus: Zuu, zuu, zuu, zuu, hicha-hicha, gucha-gucha, jutsu, chu, chu, chu, chu, guu, zuu, zuu…
(NOTE: Probably onomatopoeia?)
Diver: Say! How about, how about the feeling of being entwined by eight legs? Oh, oh, it’s swelling inside, aa, aa…
Rather than translating the title of the book succinctly as Young Pines, the British Museum goes with the unwieldy but probably more literally accurate Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day, or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills. Other shunga books and prints on show have titles and dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place for a contemporary porn film. 1788’s Haiku Cuckoo, or Worshipping a Woman’s Pussy at Night by Katsukawa Shunshō depicts a married couple trying out the 18th century version of Viagra, with dialogue like this:
Man: How is it? Chōmeigan has a terrific effect, doesn’t it? I want to spunk all night until I’m dry.
Woman: Yes, really! I just keep coming. I felt like I was going to pass out. Ooh! Aah! Do that again. I can’t even remember having such a good time.
Sex and death
Utagawa Kunisada and Utei Enba II’s Tales of Pussy in the Palace at Night (1826) is a sort of horror-porn, complete with bitten-off penises. In fact in the 18th and 19th centuries– as now in hentai manga and anime– there was a thriving Japanese subgenre of sex and death shunga. “Erotic ghost paintings” from the early 1800s show a wife and her new lover interrupted by her dead husband bloating out of the barrel he’s been stored in, and a horrifyingly decayed ghost makes a succubus-like visit to a man in the night. In another from 1823, a rōnin (masterless samurai) seems unaware that the woman he’s having sex with has turned into a skeletonised cadaver.
I’m tempted to go on and on about this inspiring exhibition, but before I stop I’ll share with you my favourite exhibit and I’ll just mention briefly that the gay shunga material is just as uninhibited and unashamed. One book produced by those mucky pups Utagawa and Utei again, called Treasure Competition (circa 1826), features detailed drawings of famous kabuki actors’ genitals. These are the “treasures” of the title, in case you were wondering. There are many other works on show with samurai courting and screwing men, particularly actors who it seems had a similar gay– in every sense of the word– and loose reputation as did their Western counterparts.
Priest in the Bag
I’m not sure what it says about me, but my favourite thing was a very weird scroll from the 1600s, wonderfully if also somewhat unimaginitively titled Priest in the Bag. If you guessed that it’s about a priest in a bag, you are correct. A sex mad priest is taught a lesson– this is shunga, remember, so of course he’s taught a sexy lesson– by some nuns who will only let him make love to them if he stays in a bag.
He does eventually escape from the bag, although the text ends rather inexplicably with a note that “the bag” was thereafter treasured and kept hidden away. No mention of whether the randy priest had been put back inside it, or if “the bag” means the object or the man inside it. I don’t want one, but I did wonder where those nuns got such a nice sex bag. Was there somebody in the village they could just pay a visit to and say casually, “Hey, here’s a few yen. If you could just run us up a sex bag for a priest ASAP, that’d be great”?
If you have any theories as to why I found this the most interesting work in the exhibition, I’d prefer it if you kept them to yourself.