The Genteel
October 1, 2020


Sugimura Jihei, Untitled erotic picture, mid-1680s, Private collection, USA. "Source: The Huffington Post".

The Floating World, or ukiyo-e, is a historic Japanese term that expresses the escape from day-to-day life. According to Timon Screech, in his academic study Sex and the Floating World, this cognitive state had a physical place in brothels, particularly in north-east Edo (modern Tokyo). For those who couldn't visit these regularly, erotic artwork known as shunga - which translates in English as 'spring pictures' - was available to buy.

For the first time, a diverse collection of this taboo-breaking art form is now on display at The British Museum from 3 October 2013 to 5 January 2014.

Kitagawa Utamaro Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Utamakura Poem of the Pillow 1788 Sheet from a colour woodblock printed album British Museum
Kitagawa Utamaro; 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. 
Source: The Huffington Post.

Shunga was produced from around 1600 to 1900, despite a legal ban in north-east Edo that affected production from 1722 until around the 1740s, and remained increasingly popular in Japan. The art consisted of "painted hand-scrolls, printed books [and] sets of coloured prints," explains the exhibition's curator, Tim Clark, in the introductory video to the exhibit. Many from the "ruling class down to the ordinary townsperson" bought these erotic pieces.

There is a diverse range of shunga on display at the exhibition; from the comic and sexually suggestive, to the downright pornographic. These seventeenth to twentieth-century prints, drawings, photographs and even sex toys reveal a secretive but important part of Japanese historical culture.

Walking around the exhibition, visitors are immediately struck by the antithesis of the artwork. There is an intimacy in them; both the men and women depicted are enjoying the pleasures of sex. Yet this was not a cultural norm. Within the licensed pleasures of The Floating World prostitution was rife, sexually transmitted diseases were abundant and unsafe abortions meant there was a dangerous consequence joining the pleasures of the flesh. But this is not a depicted reality in the art of the Floating World. Shunga is the idealised sexual encounter: free and without consequence. 

Shunga is the idealised sexual encounter: free and without consequence. It is easy to see why these images have been deemed taboo in recent centuries.

It is easy to see why these images may have been deemed taboo in recent centuries. Although the British Museum received a large collection of shunga in 1865, it was hidden away. Similarly, these images were banned from Japanese institutions for most of the twentieth century and there has still never been an exhibition of this sort in Japan. This is the first time a full collection, solely dedicated to shunga and featuring 170 pieces, has been on display to the public in the United Kingdom. 

"The longstanding idea that the shape of the human body somehow encompasses perfection is drawn from a Greek ideal that was completely absent in all East Asian countries," Timon Screech told Duncan Bartlett of the BBC World Service earlier this month. "It is much more likely that people thought beautiful, fine clothes were more sexually arousing than skin. Skin is what workers exposed in the street or what you saw at the bath house," he explained. 

Although it is often claimed that shunga was viewed by men and women, it was more often sold to men, the visitors of brothels and the pleasure quarters of Japan. However, they were occasionally given to women on their wedding night. "Even though they were cheap, women were still unlikely to have had the means or motivation to buy them. They were sometimes bought by patrons of the floating world, wanting souvenirs of their visit to a world of pleasures that was only open to men to enjoy," explained Dr Majella Munro, a Postdoctoral Researcher of Contemporary Art from Asia-Pacific, when speaking to Bartlett.

The shunga images themselves are frequently beautiful and richly coloured, but the erotic element ranges dramatically. The artworks vary from the relatively tame depictions of ukiyo-e brothels to the pornographic shunga and the risqué abuna-e images like Suzuki Harunobu's 'Woman Stepping into a Bath' (c.1760s).

Chobunsai Eishi 1756–1829 Young woman dreaming of Ise Monogatari c. early nineteenth century. Hanging scroll ink, colour and gold on silk The Trustees of the British Museum
Chobunsai Eishi (1756–1829); Young woman
dreaming of Ise Monogatari; c. early nineteenth
century. Hanging scroll; ink, colour and
gold on silk. The Trustees of the British Museum.
Source: The Huffington Post. 

Although most are heterosexual, there are also lesbian and gay scenes, and one rather shocking, however enthralling, example of bestiality in Kinoe no komatsu, where a naked woman is encompassed by large red octopi. This colour woodblock is by Katsushika Hokusai, most famous for The Great Wave (1830).

Hokusai was prolific in the production of shunga and also created the Adonis Flower Series (1822-3) depicting the sexual intimacy shared between a husband and wife. In several of the more explicit artwork depictions, which include detailed phalluses and vaginas, the genitals are obscenely, and rather comically, enlarged. There are also several featuring sex toys, and one by Utagawa Kunisada depicting a scene of seduction, where a young man shows a woman his shunga scroll in the hope of enticing her to bed. 

Undeniably, shunga is a part of a historical culture. Interwoven between the exhibit are factual placards explaining the cultural relevance of shunga, both in its uses and in the almost silent influence it had on artists from Picasso to Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsely to Rodin. It also continues to impact modern Japanese anime, Manga and tattoo art. 

Although viewers are instantly drawn in by the images, there remains the question of whether this is art or pornography. Given its intended use, the urge is to catalogue these images as porn; yet there is something all around more tender that cannot be ignored.

Looking through the clear glass screen at the Kitagawa Utamaro woodblock print from Poem of the Pillow (c. 1788), which depicts two lovers in a passionate embrace upstairs in a tearoom, the pleasure of the image comes from its intimacy and love, rather than its sense of erotica.

Shunga are very rarely considered to be depictions of prostitution or violence, but instead offer the Eastern interpretation of sexual pleasure - men and women sharing the pleasures of sex. As Clark suggests in the introductory video, there is a "mutuality of shunga," an expression of love, as well as excitement.

While shunga may be a sexual fantasy, it is also a cultural history. This exhibition has brought new light to a secret world, hidden beneath those richly embroidered silks and painted screens.

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