Sex and pleasure in Japan and beyond

Yesterday I went to the Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art exhibition at the British Museum. Translated literally, the word shunga means spring pictures (apparently “spring” is a euphemism for sex) and refers to erotic colour prints, painted hand-scrolls and printed books made between 1600 and 1900 in Japan. Despite a few periods of official bans, they were very popular and used to arouse couples and for personal stimulation. It is interesting that the latter function is pretty much the sole use of modern pornography and very few would admit that they, as Tim Ferris phrased it in his blog post, “use gentlemanly (ahem) websites to ‘relax’ during the day” (he also adds: “Any guy who insists he’s never done this should not be trusted.”) The Japanese prints, on the other hand, were to be looked at by men and women and treasured by married couples. There is no objectification of anyone, and both partners appear to be enjoying their love act; violence is extremely rare and offenders are portrayed as repulsive with horribly contorted faces. What is very moving in the pictures, is the affection between the lovers who maintain an eye contact most of the time.

Furthermore, what really struck me, is that in shunga, sex is relaxed and it is an integral part of everyday life. In many pictures, we can see a teapot, teacups, bowls of rice etc. right next to the lovers’ bed which creates an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy. It is very different to how sex is often portrayed in the Western culture – a horny couple returning to one’s apartment after an evening out, gulping down cocktails and frantically tearing their clothes off to indulge in a flawlessly choreographed marathon to an orgasm. There is no such artificially heated up and alcohol-induced atmosphere on shunga images. There is also no sense of shame, guilt or sin – which are unfortunately an integral part of our culture. In Western Europe the division between “high art” and “low art” put a stigma of obscenity to graphic depictions of sex. Christianity added further censorship and condemnation. According to Catholicism, the main objective of sex is procreation. Shunga books, often parodying conventional guides to marriage with their “obey your in-laws” tips, encourage sex as the way to a happy marriage. Though this is not limited to heterosexual couples – homosexual acts are just as welcome and beautifully portrayed. Sex in Shunga is genderless and classless – everyone from the ruling class to the ordinary people enjoyed the spring pictures.

There is also an element of humour in the shunga images. Many images have cartoon-like descriptions (“You’re coming too fast, I can’t wait any longer,” etc.), there are unexpected elements such as a cat playing with a man’s testicles, or massively oversized genitals. In Library of Womanly Virtue for the Vulva by Tsukioka Settei we see men in boats ejaculating spectacularly into the sky; New Stories of Ten Thousand Couplings and Buddings by Akatsuki no Kanenari show twin hemispheres in the shape of male and female genitalia. One of the famous artists, Kawanabe Kyosai, sealed his paintings with a seal in the shape of a vagina.

On the British Museum website, we can read that shunga has continued to influence modern forms of art, including manga, anime and Japanese tattoo art. The exhibition features a very small number of works by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec and Beardsley as examples of artists inspired by shunga. I, however, thought I would take this opportunity to give a few examples of lesser-known works which portray eroticism in an unusual and imaginative way.

The first artist that comes to my mind is an Austrian expressionist painter, Egon Schiele. I fell in love with his works as a teenager and was painfully disappointed, when, during a short visit to Cesky Krumlov, I was unable to see the museum dedicated to him because it got closed the day before my arrival due to a theft of one of his paintings… Schiele’s amazingly expressive lines often depict bodies in passionate acts. In 1912, when the artist got arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent (the charges got dropped later on), the police seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered… pornographic, naturally.

Another interesting visual depiction of sexual relationships is Aeon Flux, a unique science fiction animated show created by Peter Chung. The story takes place in a bizarre dystopian world where genetic engineering and body modifications are the norm. With its bold compositions, strong outlines as well as constant sexual tension, the series makes me think of Japanese woodcuts. It is often graphic, yet enchantingly surreal. And just like the bodies of shanga lovers escape the rules of anatomy, Aeon et al have unrealistically exaggerated athletic bodies.

Surrealism and sex are the core of Hans Bellmer’s practice. This German artist is best known for his life-sized and life-long project: creation of pubescent female dolls. I have, however, always admired the exquisite draftsmanship of his drawings, where male and female bodies get tangled together to the point of complete fusion which gives birth to ambiguous fluid organisms. Again, this is a very non-realistic, albeit powerful, sexuality, and I really appreciate how fascinated Bellmer was with the complexities and ambiguities of the human body.

Hans Bellmer was a big influence on HR Giger, a Swiss surrealist artist whose design for the Alien won him an Oscar in 1980. His Erotomechanics are disturbing human-machine hybrids, mechanical and cold, yet charged with intense emotions.

And finally, an artist I have recently discovered: a contemporary French painter, Paul Laurenzi. His erotic art is far “gentler” than the works of artists mentioned above, but I like his colour palette as well as the atmosphere in his paintings.