Pornography or erotic art? Japanese museum aims to confront shunga taboo

Centuries-old works of art illustrating graphic sexuality are being is illustrated in a tiny Tokyo museum with curators wanting the public to appreciate their humour

Japans adult movie industry is among the biggest in the world, and its scope of pornographic manga is eclectic and ubiquitous. But it has taken centuries-old works of art for the country to challenge official reticence towards graphic depictions of sex.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people have flocked to a tiny museum in suburban Tokyo to cast their eyes over woodblock publishes and paints of couples, and sometimes groups, in the throes of sexual ecstasy.

With titles such as Pillow Book for the Young: All You Require to Know About How the Jeweled Rod Goes In and Out, the images leave little to the imagination.

In one of the least explicit works, a semi-naked woman clutches a bamboo comb between her teeth, her gaze session that of the viewer. Others, though, abound with loosened or disposed kimono and the oversized genitalia of men and women in all manner of sex contortions. Voyeurism and revelries are recurring themes. And unlike in pornographic movies induced in Japan, expurgatory pixellation is nowhere to be seen.

Billed as the first proper shunga( springtime pictures) exhibition in the country of the genres birth, the collect of 133 publishes discovered a home at the Eisei Bunko Museum, but only after being rejected by at the least 10 other prospective venues.

Galleries that dreaded shocking guests with the frank depictions of sexual escapades unfolding inside Edo-era( 1603 -1 868) brothels, inns, teahouses and even Buddhist temples misread the public craving for shunga, a once-popular subgenre of ukiyo-e that mixes explicit content with visual humor and short narratives with a Carry On-style devotion to innuendo.

Evening Encounter attributed to Keisai Eisen. Photo: Corbis

The museums director, Morihiro Hosokawa, said he was honoured to give the Japanese public its first opportunity to appreciate the real shunga for decades.

Printed copies of shunga are widely available to collectors, and it is not logical that art fans are denied of an opportunity to see the original runs, Hosokawa, a former prime minister, told reporters before the exhibition opened. We must work to break the taboo.

With over a month still left to run, the exhibition has already attracted more than 90,000 guests willing to wait up to half an hour for a glimpse of the works of such shunga luminaries as Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro.

The Eisei Bunko exhibition is long overdue, said Akiko Yano, an art historian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, who repudiates the would-be censors view of shunga as feudal-era porn. I suggest that they seem carefully at the prints to appreciate how exquisitely they were made and to read the text and dialogues inscribed in each painting, she said.

Then they will see that each shunga contains a tale, characters and a gentle atmosphere, as well as humor, satire and lots of other funny elements.

About half the images on display at Eisei Bunko were loaned by the British museum, which hosted its own widely popular shunga exhibition in 2013, with the rest coming from Japanese museum and private collections.

Having started out as paintings reserved for the upper classes in 17 th century Japan, shunga were embraced by people from all backgrounds after the invention of woodblock publish enabled artists to turn out erotic images in their thousands.

Not everyone shares the Japanese art worlds enthusiasm over shungas long-awaited reappearance, however.

Last month, police cautioned four weekly publications that they could be breaking profanity laws after publishing shunga to coincide with the exhibition. One editor was suspended for running perhaps the best-known shunga, the Dream of the Fishermans Wife, which illustrates a woman being pleasured by two octopuses.

That ribald brand of witticism, and the clear pleasure artists took in mixing the preposterous with the erotic, prompted the Tokugawa shogunate to issue, in 1722, a ban on unauthorised books that included shunga.

A shunga publish. Photo: Geoffrey Clements/ Corbis

Shunga production continued, out of sight of the authorities concerned, but there was to be no resurgence of mass consumption, as Japans 19 th century modernisers shunned aspects of Japans history and cultural activities they considered unwelcome reminders of its feudal past.

Once shunga had been officially classified as obscene, it was difficult to rescue it back into the realm of art, said Tim Clark, head of the Japanese section at the British Museum.

It is good that people in Japan are eventually able to see the real shunga works and not just illustrations in volumes, Clark added.

I hope they will feel a sense of discovery and re-connection with something important that has been missing from the style the culture history of Japan has been presented up to now. It is clear that people in Japan are responding very positively to the beauty, humor and humanity of shunga.

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