Monday, December 23, 2013

The paradox of Shunga

The quite wonderful exhibition, Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art  at the British Museum in London, carries with it a surprising paradox or contradiction, which no one has so far been able to explain to me adequately.

Japanese culture in general emphasizes the unstated and the understated, leaving much to the imagination. Yet Shunga art, which is basically erotic art, is the exact opposite. Here, almost nothing to do with the genitals is left to the imagination; instead they are given prominence, the size of the organs more often than not exaggerated beyond reasonable dimensions. 

Yet, in spite of this prominence, most of the rest of the body is covered up in many, if not most, depictions of sexual encounters; in many it is the genitalia alone that are exposed. There is of course, also something of the artificial in these works; couples make love with their clothes on; the hair is usually immaculately coiffed, in some a lady is having her hair combed while having intercourse while in others there are spectators, including children, witnessing the scene.

Why would a culture that has traditionally emphasized the understated produce work that is anything but under-stated? Some Japanese friends have told me that Shunga is nothing but pornography. I do not believe it. In spite of the fact that they may have been used as stimulants or as props for sexual pleasure, these are works of art as well. It is the brilliant depiction of interiors, the wonderful colour combinations, and the immaculate detail with which clothes are represented that turns them into visually pleasurable works. Indeed, it may be said that the genitalia are in fact often a distraction from the rest of the work, especially the depiction of the graceful women in the Shunga work of Kitigawa Utamaro. If  “art is fantasy”, as a quote at the exhibition proclaims, then it is those graceful figures that invite the viewer into a world of fantasy, not the prominently exposed genitalia. A critic once wrote that the sexual figure in Boticcelli’s Birth of Venus is not the naked lady but her richly dressed companion to the right, presumably meaning that it is the latter who draws the viewer into a world of fantasy. Maybe the great masters of Shunga art were trying to balance the explicitness of their images with depictions that allow a world of fantasy and imagination to come into play, all in one.

Shunga was apparently not legal in Japan for very long periods, though tolerated throughout and popular with all levels of society. It is, I gather, still frowned on in Japan. Indeed, I am told that, in modern-day Japan, adult movies in hotels often blur the genitalia – in striking contradiction to Shunga art of earlier times. And there is the contradiction: explicit pornographic films that blur the genitalia on the one hand (perhaps in keeping with the understated in Japanese culture), and great art that is implicit in everything but the genitalia (quite unlike the understated characteristic of Japanese culture).

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