You’ll need to choose your companion carefully before heading off to the British Museum’s latest show. You’re obliged to leave the kids at home (the exhibition has an over-16s age restriction), but you might also consider arriving without your grandma, new boyfriend or work colleague, for ‘Shunga’ promises to be one of the museum’s most socially awkward displays.
A sexually explicit feast of paintings, prints and illustration, the exhibition celebrates an erotically charged style known as ‘shunga’ or ‘spring pictures’. It was produced in Japan between 1600 and the mid-1800s, a time when the country was secluded from the rest of the world, and enjoying its own internal order and culture. It wasn’t seen as taboo (though it was notionally illegal for a time, and is certainly seen as distasteful in Japan now), nor was it designed to feed the imaginations of a particular sort of gent: it was created by celebrated artists and lapped up by men and women from all classes as art, not porn.
Seen together, the artworks offer a window into a culture that saw sex and sexuality in entirely different terms to polite European society, and the show itself demonstrates a brave move on the part of the British Museum, whose duty it is to explore the history of human culture, no matter how uncomfortable. So arrive with an open mind, and be prepared for ‘Shunga’s sometimes funny, sometimes tender, sometimes shocking (there are enlarged genitals, masturbation and even an amorous octopus involved at one point) works of pure art.