Japanese erotic art

The chattering classes have just discovered the wonders of Japanese erotic art (some of us have been relishing it for decades). The posh Sunday papers have been full of it, together with the ‘quality’ dailies. What has prompted all this excitement are two exhibitions, one at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (tel: +44 (0) 1223 332900). It has the promising title of The Night of Longing: Love and Desire in Japanese Prints. It is running now and continues until January 12 2014.

Japanese shunga exhibition

The other exhibition is within the august portals of The British Museum, who, until comparatively recently, had a locked room full of such non-approved material. I once visited it to look at a pamphlet eagerly compiled by a late 18th century forbear of mine, Harris’s Directory of Covent Garden Ladies. Now the covers are off, so to speak, for Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art which started October 1 and runs until January 5 2014. According to the BM, the images on display were produced from 1600 to 1900 and banned in Japan for much of the 20th century. The explicit and beautifully detailed erotic paintings, prints and books inspired Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsley, Rodin and Picasso.

Mostly created by the artists of the ukiyo-e or ‘floating world’ school, these popular works were known as shunga, – literally  ‘spring pictures’. They appealed to all classes in Japan for almost 300 years, and to men and women alike. Frequently tender and humorous, they celebrate sexual pleasure in all its forms in brilliantly coloured paintings and prints, culminating with beautiful and explicit works by iconic artists Utamaro, Hokusai and Kunisada.

Within Japan, shunga has continued to influence modern forms of art, including manga, anime and Japanese tattoo art. The exhibition sheds new light on this unique art form within Japanese social and cultural history.

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