The Shunga exhibition at the British Museum really isn’t exaggerating when it advises parental guidance. Subtitled ‘Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ it shows exactly that, explicitly. Yet also quite beautifully; focus only on the delicacy of line, colour and pattern, the technical skill of the handpainted scroll or the woodblock print, and the extraordinary artistic merit is obvious. However, the aim of the exhibition is to present this genre of Japanese erotic art known as Shunga, to set it within its historic and cultural context, and to ask what function it served and who its audience was.
So here are a few PG-rated examples that the press office have allowed into the wider public realm (an idea that in itself shows how prudish we can still be in relation to C17th Japan where such prints were sold on the street). Utamaro’s ‘Poem of the Pillow’ (c.1788) is one of the most famous series of erotic prints (which were often produced in a series of twelve). The example above shows lovers in the upstairs room of a tea-house, the eye led over the folds and patterns of diaphanous fabric to the exposed white flesh – remarkably restrained in this image, a teaser for what is to follow. Details establish a touching intimacy; peer close and you can make out the man’s half-closed eye just below and in tandem with the wave of the woman’s hair at her temple, gazing at her as she holds his face in delicate porcelain fingers.
The more cartoonish style of Sukenobu illustrates the essential comic element to the genre. This image of a ‘sexual dalliance between man and geisha’ (right, c.1711-16) is a whirl of colourful undulating forms, from which two feet emerge – and a fumble and a slightly awkward kiss. A racy sort of humour also appears in the scene of a woman enjoying the company of an octopus, and another in which a cloth merchant is overcome by the lusty housewives he has unwittingly called upon. Later examples often employ more exaggerated cropping, a more restrained line and simplified palette, such as Kiyonaga’s ‘Handscroll for the Sleeve’ (below, c.1785), a close-up of a couple, their eyes closed in ecstasy. It is clear to see, even without the few images by Picasso, Beardsley and Toulouse-Lautrec that appear as an afterthought to the bulk of the show, the impact that these works had on European artists once Japan opened up and they became more freely available.
It was just as interesting to watch the reactions of other visitors to the exhibition. All, without exception, peered in closely – for the detail of the work demands it – unembarrassed and curious as those many Japanese couples who originally bought and enjoyed such images together. One has to pause and peer frequently to decipher the tangled contortions of entwined legs and to decide which belongs to whom; in some the anatomy is totally distorted in favour of showing all the explicit details from a particularly extreme angle. And yet, in distinct contrast to today’s pornography (artistic merit aside for there is no comparison), Shunga in almost every case shows the emotional contact and enjoyment of the couple, who are also given character and identity – in some cases by the insertion of textual narrative, further illuminating the very human and intimate nature of their relationship.
The evening brought a much milder, balletic flirtation in the form of the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote. Don Q is really a totally superfluous character, taking no part in the ballet’s central love story; tottering across the stage in pursuit of his visions he serves only to lead us into each act, a crazed narrator. The ballet’s narrative, then, relies upon the romance between Basilio and Kitri, which allows for a classic three acts of solos, duets and group set-pieces. This has led critics to call the ballet ‘silly’ – and yes, it is lightweight. But the duets are beautiful, with Kitri pirouetting endlessly like a spinning top and still remarkably maintaining absolute balance on the next step, while a lovely, touching violin solo and some dreamlike harp music redeem the score from being simply an accompaniment. There is a good element of humour added, both in the slapstick character of Sancho Panza, and within the choreography itself, as at the crucial moment when Basilio lifts Kitri into striking airborne flight the orchestra stops playing abruptly and they are left there swaying until the music starts up again. The supporting characters are memorable, particularly the street urchins, and the slick, macho toreador who prances about the stage with his entourage covered in gold-braid; and the gypsies in the dream sequence of the second act who dance sensuously to a Spanish guitar, their instinctive, supple movements totally at odds with the exquisite perfection of the tutu-clad dryads who follow them, seeming by comparison like mechanical dolls in a musical box.
As usual the ROH presents striking and elaborate sets, these designed by Tim Hatley – beginning in the gloom of Don Quixote’s bedroom, then opening up onto a Spanish town of sliding architectural elements from which emerge a disparate cast of townspeople, some in rags, some in startlingly bright flamenco dresses. A total change of atmosphere takes over in the second act, the stage filled with a rootlike tangle of branches, studded with giant pink daisies, the light a deep turquoise blue, with puffs of dry ice to create a hallucinatory haze. The third act opens with a lively tavern scene, the dancers throwing tankards about and leaping onto wooden trestle tables, before ending back in the town square with a satisfyingly predictable marital denouement.