Until January, The British Museum is hosting a shunga exhibition. Shunga literally translates as “spring pictures” in Japanese, spring being a euphemism for sex. The erotic art, created mainly from 1600 to 1900, shows individuals, couples and groups engaged in a variety of sexual activities. Reviewer Sarah Jackson found the exhibition refreshing, noticing how enjoyable and fun most of the events portrayed seemed to be, as well as the diversity of audiences the art appears to have been made for, in contrast to modern pornography.
The curator, Timothy Clark, calls shunga “a love letter to sex”, and it’s as good a description as any. What it most reminds me of are saucy seaside postcards, the kind that use Carry On style jokes and double entendres to imply sexual relations and desires. But whereas saucy seaside postcards rarely acknowledge anything but the male gaze, shunga caters for almost every gaze one can imagine.
Image: Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806), Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Utamakura
(Poem of the Pillow), c. 1788. Sheet from a colour-woodblock printed album. © The Trustees of the British Museum