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SOAS scholar's exhibition on Japanese erotic art to open at British Museum

12 September 2013

Professor Andrew Gerstle, Head of Department of Japan and Korea at SOAS, University of London, along with Leverhulme Research Fellow Dr Akiko Yano, has co-curated the most comprehensive exhibition to date on Japanese traditional erotic art and literature, known as shunga in Japanese. This is the result of a four-year Leverhulme funded project in collaboration with the British Museum and two Japanese universities. The exhibition catalogue, with over 30 contributors, is 536 pages in full colour.

Taking place at the British Museum, London from 3 October 2013 – 5 January 2014, ‘Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art’ draws upon the thousands of sexually explicit paintings, prints, and illustrated books with texts that were produced, known as ‘spring pictures’ (shunga) in early modern Japan (1600 – 1900).

Until the last two decades shunga has been absent from academic research, virtually under a taboo, and is still under-researched.  By re-focusing attention on this material, the exhibition aims to give a new perspective on Japanese society of the Edo period (1600-1868) and the changes as a result of modernisation during the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Shunga sex and pleasure in Japanese art

Professor Andrew Gerstle said: "The paintings, books and prints, most by famous artists, are sexually explicit but also usually tender and often very funny. This exhibition creates a narrative over more than four centuries up to around 1900, covering themes such as humour, parody, representation of women, distribution, censorship, political subversion and its impact on European artists in the late 19th and 20th centuries, such as Beardsley, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Picasso. The exhibition shows how shunga created a fantasy discourse that presented society as relaxed about sexuality, acknowledging sexual pleasure for both men and women. During the period of rapid modernization in the 20th century during which Japan modelled itself on the great Western powers, shunga was made into a taboo, suppressed and virtually forgotten until very recently."

The exhibition will feature over 400 images from major public and private collections in Europe, USA and Japan. These images were created in direct relation to the wider contexts of literature, theatre, the culture of the pleasure quarters, and urban consumerism; here we see a robust sensuality, irreverence, humour and parody that challenges us today to reconsider sexuality.

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For more information visit the British Museum's website.