I can’t even say ‘Shunga’ without accidentally making my voice unnecessarily dramatic and striking a pose like a shitty ninja from a late 70’s American exploitation film that twisted and exaggerated an already twisted exaggeration of Japanese culture. Like a man studying a photograph of a photograph, such is the damage done to me by the Western interpretation of Japanese culture since the end of World War II. I see Japanese culture through an identifiably false Western lens, a lens distorted by a bizarre romanticism of violence and an even more bizarre and subjective evaluation of Japanese sexuality. I didn’t realise quite how misguided my subjectivity was until I saw the Shunga exhibition at the British Museum for myself.
The exhibition was excellent. Flawless in its presentation. Ostensibly it was chronological, from what we in the West would consider the Early Middle Ages onwards, but here and there were inserted relevant examples of relevant anachronistic examples – some bits directly influenced by much earlier examples were presented side by side, and when there were European works that seemed to have some reference to a particular influence from Shunga, those were included too.
I was deeply impressed by how objectively all this was staged. The British Museum presented it all humourlessly, without judgement, without agenda. The exhibition offered no conclusions: the art was simply… there, and any interpretation was up to the projection of the viewer. The cold, black ink copy on those little white panels glued to the walls next to the works that they described were bleakly informative as they described how it was common for a priest to bugger a teenage boy, or for a woman to enjoy being watched as she made eye contact with some unknown voyeur beyond the knowledge of her sexual partner. I noticed what could only be 300 year old semen splashed breathlessly across an ageing, tea-coloured scroll depicting a well endowed man penetrating a blank-faced concubine – the little white panel made no reference to that at all, but it’s no coincidence that the scroll was opened to that particular section. If you go and see it, it’s unmistakable.
What I did notice, though, was the lack of humour in the attendees, all milling around and talking in hushed mutterings about the beauty of this or that and, to my mind, rather missing the point of it all. You see, judging Japanese sexual culture on the merits of the Shunga exhibit is rather like judging British sexual culture on the merits of the Carry-On films, 400 years from now. It’s certainly not the museum’s fault; as I’ve already said, the exhibit was without judgement of any kind. It was more the expectation of the milling, voyeuristic viewers that pricked my attention. There was humour there, but people were missing it.
This Carry-On comparison holds water. There was a corner of the exhibit that held a couple of examples of openly humorous Shunga artworks, but I believe that humour was actually present in most of the artwork presented. I don’t believe that an octopus between the thighs of a fisherman’s wife was ever meant to be seriously sexually arousing. After having seen it all for myself, it was far less serious than I expected, and far, FAR less serious than everyone seemed to be taking it. The only laughter I heard was my own, rattling idiosyncratically around the walls of that quiet room, no doubt annoying everybody who thought it was more serious than it seemed to me to be. Everybody else seemed to be creeping around as though they would burst into flames of cultural shame if the floorboards so much as creaked.
Perhaps what made it seem so humourless was the work itself: I counted two facial expressions amongst all of the earlier works. Two. It seemed to me that the genitals, the penetration itself, was given utter care and almost obsessive attention, each pubic hair and priapic vein designed and hewn, and the faces of the participants were copied and pasted from one image to the next – the same tiny mouths, the same closed eyes, the same passionless faces, repeated over and over, like walking through a hall of mannequins. And the images that showed any emotion were generally because the head was thrown back very slightly more than the rest of the images, and that the couple either were either making eye contact, or their mouths were slightly more agape than the rest of the button-mouthed sexual participants. It put me in mind of modern Bollywood cinema, in which the protagonists share a very intimate – but entirely chaste –desire for one another. Shunga was just lacking the chastity.
A great exhibition, well worth the visit.