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?