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?
Or: What the captions say on Hokusai’s ‘Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’
Warning: sexiness. Well, in my view totally hilarious rather than sexy. The two things can of course coexist, but in this case I’m declaring my personal preference for the hilarious interpretation. I think James Joyce’s letters to his Mrs are also lurking somewhere in that particular no (wo)man’s land. My article regarding old Jim’s fat mickey and what he’d like to do with it is still one of the most popular posts I’ve ever done here, along with the one about Japanese manga onomatopoeia, so when I was inspired to research the book that this famous print comes from it immediately became clear that I should share my findings with the perverts who visit this site. Edo sex onomatopeia! Bizarre erotic material! Japanese stuff! It hits all the blogging G spots.
The print generally known in English as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is in Japanese simply 蛸と海女, Tako no ama (Octopus and Shell Diver). I’m a long way from being Mr Politically Correct, but right there we’ve got what seems to be a glaring piece of casual Western imperialist sexism, since she might well be somebody’s wife but the most salient fact is that she’s actually a fisherwoman in her own right. It’s not even an accurate description because the fisherman isn’t part of this scenario. Presumably his presence would impede this young lady’s hook ups with such fine specimens of cephalopod manhood as are shown here. It’s the kind of a work-related fling that happens when your colleagues are mainly molluscs.
Katsushika Hokusai, he of the iconic The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, also worked openly and to equal acclaim, popularity and prestige on erotic prints (春画 shunga) like the one under discussion here. This particular print is from the novel Kinoe no Komatsu (Young Pines, 1814), a title which is probably as euphemistic as calling the whole thing a novel; I should imagine if it has any novelistic qualities at all it would still be the kind of novel you’d read with one hand. For those who don’t know already, the print depicts a naked woman in a consensual sexual encounter with sea creatures. If you’re on the front page, clicking READ MORE (or whatever it says above the break) will show it to you. Don’t click the link if you or your employer are not inclined towards enjoying things like that. It’s visible on the wall in the background of my current profile picture on my own website, among other places, to the outrage and disgust of absolutely nobody. You’ll probably see worse by accident when you Google something you’d previously thought was innocent (I know I have)… but whatever, those who need warning should consider yourselves warned.