Culture Shock

It’s tough to define art, especially because every culture has a different definition. Maybe you just know it when you see it.


Uwaki no so (Fancy-free type) from the series Fujin sogaku juttai (Ten Types in the Physiognomic Study of Women), c. 1792 - 1793.

In the autumn of 1859, American journalist and businessman Francis Hall wandered the shops of Yokohama, Japan. Hall had just arrived in the city, five years after Commodore Perry forced a trade treaty on the country, opening ports to American ships under threat of naval attack, and ending a centuries-long isolation of Japan to most foreigners. In his journal, Hall recorded an encounter in one shop where the owner and his wife pulled out a number of boxes that contained carefully wrapped books “full of vile pictures executed in the best style of Japanese art.” He continued:

[The shop owner] opened the books at the pictures, and the wife sat down with us and began to ‘tell me’ what beautiful books they were. This was done apparently without a thought of anything low or degrading commensurate with the transaction. I presume I was the only one whose modesty could have been possibly shocked. This is a fair sample of the blunted sense and degraded position of the Japanese as to ordinary decencies of life. These books abound and are shamelessly exhibited.

A few days later, Hall reported a similar encounter at a home of a Japanese couple. He noted the wife’s immaculate and well kept home, and then described how the husband retrieved several items from a cabinet drawer. Hall wrote:

He placed in my hands three or four very obscene pictures. His wife stood close by and it was apparent from the demeanor of both that there was not a shadow of suspicion in their minds of the immodesty of the act or of the pictures themselves. They had shown them as something really very choice and worth looking at and preserved them with great care.

His shock at such “vile” pictures had as much to do with their content as with the casual display of them and what this behavior suggested about the personal habits of the Japanese. Much to Hall’s dismay, both husband and wife found these erotic images “worth looking at.”


  • “Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art.” The British Museum, London. Through January 5, 2014.

What Hall’s hosts were showing him were shunga pictures,
a centuries-old erotic art that is now on display at the British Museum. This
expansive exhibition puts us in front of over 170 works including paintings,
scrolls, and hand painted books, many of which present highly stylized scenes of
sexual encounters amidst lush landscapes or richly layered interiors. The show
details the historical evolution of shunga, presenting a linear timeline
from early works, to the art’s most prolific era during the Edo period between
1600-1860, and the final censoring of these works in the early 20th century just
as Japan was becoming more open to the West.

While today we wouldn’t claim these images are “vile” the show comes
with a number of parental warnings, and the reviews have cautioned patrons that
this show may not be the best place for a Sunday outing with grandma, or to take
a first date. Even the press images for the show carefully crop out those explicit
sexual parts of the images. Such responses to these works play on a consistent
paradox in our encounters with erotic art in the West where looking and not
looking go hand in hand, each titillating us in different ways even as they are
circumscribed by religious beliefs.

The introductory text panel of the show tells us that these images
“challenge us to reconsider the mutually exclusive categories of ‘art’
versus ‘pornography’ that evolved in the West.” But it is difficult to untangle these
works from these distinctions that are themselves products of the 19th century
when shunga first made its appearances in Europe and America.
(As part of the treaty agreement, Commodore Perry was given several erotic
pictures, a diplomatic gesture that so often gets ignored in the story of Perry’s
Asian successes.) Aside from the rich aesthetic and cultural history this show
presents, I was equally compelled by how our not looking at shunga
has it own history.

Entering through the exhibition glass doors, you can’t help the feeling that
there is something uneasy about looking at these works in such a public way,
standing next to strangers gazing at paintings and woodblock prints of oversized
penises and detailed vaginas, all arranged in glass cases like specimens of
natural history. Or, as in other parts of the British Museum, the works sit like
artifacts of a dead culture, the glass cases fostering both our curiosity as well as
our distance.

One case in particular sits at table height, making its viewing accessible
only to those tall enough to look down upon it. Inside there is a print displaying
willow thin men arranged in a circle, each balancing his grotesquely oversized
penis on a wooden stand while a representative of the court measures them. The
humor of this work echoes similar grotesque and politically charged cartoons of
-century France. A Japanese commentator some decades later complained
about the size of “the thing” in such prints, adding “if it were depicted the actual
size there would be nothing of interest.” For that reason don’t we say, “Art is
fantasy?” Throughout this show, these works constantly remind us that realism is
not a concern for these artists. Rather these stylized images take us beyond the

It was in the 18th century that shunga flourished amidst the
“floating world” (ukiyo) school, which included poetry and paintings
of the “pleasure districts” of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), where licensed brothels,
Kabuki theaters, and teahouses, provided sanctioned spaces for indulgences
outside the demands of the public life. Thousands of such works were produced
between the 18th and early 19th centuries, for both the upper classes and the
newly expanding middle class, often given as gifts for newlyweds.

Despite what these works might suggest, Japan was hardly a paradise
of free love. It was instead a highly structured society organized by rules of
Confucian philosophy that governed public life with a concern for duty and self-
restraint. But in the private worlds, such demands were less severe. To think
of shunga as purely expressive of sexual pleasure misses the
meanings such works had in shaping private realities and fantasies within the
Edo era. Details of houses and tearooms, flowing with ornate fabrics and objects,
center many of these works. In some of the earlier prints, there is often a voyeur
figure looking on through a window, wishing to join in or to watch from a distance.
Interior and exterior, windows and doors, all play characters in these works, as
sexual acts are deeply tied to richly rendered private spaces.

Torii Kiyonaga (1752 – 1815), detail from Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), c. 1785. 

What strikes you in these works is how much they lack a concern for
the body. Consider Torii Kiyonaga’s “Album for Spring and Autumn” (c. 1708—
13) a series of twelve prints that are strikingly simple in form, each composed
of continuous curving lines that create a flow of bodies and clothing against a
flat background. Such use of lines are seen again in his “Hand Scroll for the
Sleeve” (c. 1785), presenting several horizontal format drawings depicting lovers
in a number of couplings — adolescents distracted from calligraphy practice,
an older couple in repose, a young courtly couple. Each couple expands along
the horizontal plane as if they were seemingly squeezed within the frame of the
narrow scrolls, creating a compelling intimacy and perspective.

Throughout these works bodies are minimally rendered with undulating
lines and a flat, paleness of flesh. Instead, it is the fabric that attracts the
attentions, the flows of color and details of patterns that dominate many of these
works, often done with vibrate colors or golden paints. It is the actions and
gestures that matter, the settings and stories that the images tell. The nakedness
of the bodies — what was so concerning to Western viewers at that time —
was just another form of dress. The erotic qualities emerged not from the flesh,
but from what is hidden and what the artists let us see. Like a striptease, the
pleasures of looking are wrapped up in the flow of fabric and flesh.

Consider Kitagawa Utamaro’s “Lovers Upstairs Room in Tea House” (c.
1806). One of the masters of the art, Utamaro presents a couple, their faces
unseen, leaving us to gaze at the postures and the flow of fabric, the details and
patterns rendered with precision and richness. There is also his series of prints
capturing and organizing the different facial features of woman he noticed in the
pleasure districts. But what strikes you throughout these works is how women’s
bodies rarely become objects in themselves. Instead they pose with their
partners, playful and active and often looking like equals in a sexual competition.
You won’t find a single odalisque in the entire show, no voyeuristic encounter
with the singularity of the female form.

Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806), Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), c. 1788.

Consider Katsushika Hokusai, most famous for his series of wave
paintings that have become iconic of Japanese art of the 19th century. Hokusai’s
works are often seen as major influence on trends in 19th century France,
influencing the works of Gauguin, Toulouse Lautrec, and Degas among others.
But Hokusai also produced nearly 20 shunga books and a number of
large woodblock prints. His series “Adonis Flower” (c. 1822-3) captures closely
pictured scenes of couples entangled in on another, the flow of bodily outlines
contrasting with the undulating fabrics and flow of curtains and screens. Unlike
his waves paintings with their expansive perspective, these works are tendered
with concentrated intimacy, and, like Kiyonaga’s horizontal scrolls, present the
couples movements, their contorted bodies, crammed into the confining space of
Hokusai’s frame.

Edmond de Goncourt, the French writer and diarist, produced studies of
both Hokusai and Utamaro in the mid-19th century. Of the latter work, Goncourt
was effusive about the sexual energy of the works, “the furious, almost angry
copulations” he called them, with their “the swooning woman, head thrown
back and touching the floor, with the petite mort on her face, eyes closed under
painted lids.” Much like many of his contemporaries, Goncourt brings a particular
European appreciation for these works, turning the women’s bodies, reclined and
receptive, into the sole object of our voyeuristic gaze.

Just as these works were finding new viewers in Europe, they were
become less and less produced in Japan. As you move through this show,
through the history of shunga, the images of shunga disappear.
We are told that as “contact with foreigners increased rapidly in the 1860s and
1870s, stricter regulations against shunga” were enacted in Japan.
The more Japan opened its culture to the West, the more it wished to be a global
actor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the more this art became an
embarrassing relic of the past.

But just as Japan was suppressing shunga, new laws in
the United States and England prohibited obscene forms of art and literature.
In England the “Obscene Publication Act” of 1857 was meant to protect the
corruption of youth, and in the US the Comstock Act of 1870 prohibited the
circulation of “obscene” materials in the mail. The laws were symptoms of a new
language to describe a range of sexual materials including those encountered
in foreign lands of the expanding empires or the ancient artifacts of Rome and
Greece. Central to this language was the word “pornography,” which was born in
the 19th century as a way of defining all kinds art, creating a new class of works
that were exciting by their very nature of being prohibited.

Some of the final works you encounter in this show are drawings and
phallic sex toys from the collection of George Witt, a 19th century British doctor
and later banker who amassed a large collection of contemporary and ancient
erotic art. He left his entire collection to the British Museum in 1865, where the
trustees placed it in its newly established “Secretum” or secret museum in the
museum’s vaults. Stowed away with Witt’s collection were other sexual artifacts
the museum acquired in the years to come and where its shunga art
was hidden for decades, out of sight except for those well-educated men from
Oxford and Cambridge who could handle such material.

A year before the Comstock Act, and about the same time as Hall was
wandering the shops of Yokohama, American art critic James Jackson Jarve,
writing in Art Journal, decried shunga as “inconceivably
monstrous, betraying a liking for the absolute vices as no European nation
would outwardly tolerate in any condition of society.” Such criticism, like others
of the era, liked these works to the moral flaws of the Japanese. The aesthetics
became a symptom of the nation.

The history of looking and not looking at shunga is deeply
intertwined with our fantasies and fears about boundaries, those undulating
lines between West and the East, between pornography and art. In his journal in
1863, Goncourt described his excitement with some new albums of “Japanese
obscenities” he recently purchased: “They delight me, amuse me, and charm my
eyes. I look on them as being beyond obscenity, which is there, yet seems not
be there, and which I do not see, so completely does it disappear into fantasy.”
4 November 2013

James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.

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