The British Museum has taken quite a risk in this new exhibition of explicit Japanese art. Celebrating the traditional art of shunga, an erotic art form that dates back to the 1600s, many of these beautiful artworks on show are now banned in Japan and certainly would not be able to command a large-scale exhibition in a renowned institution back home. What is more, with such explicit subject matter, there is the danger of moving into simple titillation, or the traditionally British realm of slapstick humour.
What is incredible about this show is the informative and comprehensive way in which it has been curated, with the stunning works weaving a truly fascinating alternate history of Japanese art that many members of a British audience will know nothing about. It is a testament to the museum that they have created an unabashed commentary that does not shy away from or neutralise the subject matter, which in turn dispels any air of embarrassment on the part of the audience.
Arranged thematically, the first section explains what shunga, euphemistically known as "spring pictures", actually is: a celebration of intimacy and pleasure manifested in books, scrolls and prints, often for instructional use and given as gifts to lovers. Far from being marginalised, many works were produced by Japan's most revered artists, including Utamaro and Hokusai. The point is also made that shunga is a fantasy world, and that the seemingly equal partnerships between men and women, as well as male-on-male relationships, were not as balanced in reality, but rather based on Confucian ethics of strict class systems and rituals.
Nevertheless, the astounding pieces on display are an elaborate celebration of love and sex. Unlike European traditions of the time, the sight of a single nude was uncommon. Instead clothes played an important symbolic role and nearly all works depict at least two people engaging in sexual acts. What is more, genitals are magnified and extremely detailed, with the almost shocking presence of realistic body hair. Works such as Erotic Illustrations for the Twelve Months show a huge range of sexual scenarios taking place, with the beauty of the line work and vibrant colour palette creating a balance with the explicit content and elements of humour that are so common in shunga. Depictions of ancient legend and folklore are also common topics, with one of the most unorthodox prints on display by Katasushika Kyosai illustrating a woman being pleasured by an octopus. The translation of the accompanying text would make even the most hardened viewer blush, once again showing the British Museum's commitment to a non-censorship policy.
It is still indisputable that these pieces are works of art, and the second section "Masterpieces of Shunga 1765-1850" goes on to reveal even more elaborate works. Hand-scroll for the Four Seasons by Tsukioka Setti is a mesmerising piece of work painted on silk, celebrating the different phases of a woman's sexuality. The use of gold leaf and even iridescent inks to enhance the presence of bodily fluids is something that seems so alien to traditional European viewings of art that it is both shocking and liberating.
Tracing the outlawing of shunga during the late 19th and 20th century and its subsequent erasure from Japanese scholary history, it is good to see that contemporary equivalents, as well as works from European and American artists, do not have too much presence in this show. There are hundreds of incredible works from the "golden age" of shunga and to compromise their display in favour of drawing connections across wider realms of art history would have been a mistake.
Instead, the British Museum has concentrated on bringing a whole survey of works to our attention, with the sheer impact of a completely different visualisation of sex, love and erotica creating an absolutely enthralling journey of discovery. It is interesting to see a few pieces by Lautrec and Beardsley, as well as works by 19th-century Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai, in terms of their inspiration. But in actuality, the centuries of shunga speak for themselves, offering a joyous and sensational viewing experience.