Love letter to sex – Shunga at the BM

Handscroll for the Sleeve

Torii Kiyonaga (1752 – 1815), detail from Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), c. 1785. Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum


Put sex in the title, slap on an age restriction and you’re sure to draw the crowds. That venerable institution, the British Museum, is offering the first comprehensive exhibition of Shunga art, called Shunga: Sex and pleasure in Japanese art (until 5 Jan 2014). It’s got London whispering about it in the most unlikely places and even at Frieze Masters there was a complete set of coloured prints only shown in black and white at the BM.

While you can’t get away from ample genitalia in the images, there is also an incredible sense of sensuous delight in all the paintings, done by some of Japan’s greatest artists. There’s mutual tenderness from illicit lovers, from teenagers, married couples and even nuns! Reading the captions adds hugely to understanding the humour in situations, like that of the old man with balls “like pumpkins” trying to entice his wife under the covers after being fired up by listening to the youngsters next door. The curator called it “a love letter to sex” and with the intertwining of limbs, the drapery of gorgeous kimonos and a shared sense of pleasure in the act, that’s an accurate description.


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