The largest show of Japanese erotic artworks ever seen

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The British Museum's new exhibition may be hardcore, but it's the humour and humanity that really thrills, says Adrian Hamilton

Can hardcore pornography ever be considered art? Not in the West, where the definition of high versus low art has long banished graphic depictions of sex to the realms of dirty men in mackintoshes and decadent connoisseurs of the perverse.

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In Asia, it's been a quite different matter – as Westerners have sometimes been overexcited in proclaiming. There the sexual act was traditionally regarded as an open and normal activity, to be portrayed in pictures and books as much as medical almanacs and self-help guides. Nowhere was this more so than in Japan, where a genre of explicit depictions of sexual congress termed Shunga flourished first in painted scrolls and then in woodblock reproduction from around 1600 until it was taken over by the photograph and Western moral disapproval by the end of the 19th century. It was anything but under the counter. Many – most in fact – of the finest artists of the day produced it in volume and as many of some 2,000 books, around a dozen a year, were produced in its heyday. Other countries may have produced as explicit an imagery, but none on this scale or at this level of artistic refinement.

It's time to give Shunga its due. Which is what the British Museum is doing with a major exhibition opening this week alongside a smaller show of the softer side of Japanese erotic art at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge. The British Museum show is the most comprehensive ever mounted of this genre, the product of four years of research and including 140 works, over half borrowed from other institutions around the world. Children are permitted to go in, with parental guidance (those under 15 have to be accompanied by an adult at the British Museum). And the vertical display cabinets allow the viewer to get close up and very personal to the detailed and often exaggeratedly large representations of female and male genitalia set before their gaze.

The oddity to the Western eye, once you have got over the shock of such explicit sex, is that very few of the couples – some homosexual – are pictured fully naked. Where the nude in Western art is a discreet way of hinting at sex, the semi-clothed in Japanese art is a very direct way of portraying it. That may owe something to the fact that nudity has never been regarded as erotic per se in Japan but also to the desire of artists, especially once the woodblock came into play, to show their skill in portraying textures and fabrics.

What was suggestive was the sight of the red undergarment worn by women, or the outline of a half naked women seen through a gauze curtain or the picture of the abalone divers still wet in their undergarments. The Fitzwilliam has several examples of these erotic pictures, abuna-e as they were called. When it comes to Shunga, in contrast, the pictures are too direct to be suggestive, what they communicate is not the hint of pleasure but the excitement and the ecstasy of the act itself as the couples writhe amidst their opened garments and the sense of fulfilment afterwards.

Being Japanese, much of the back story is told in the detail – the rolls of tissue which the man or women may hold as they prepare for copulation or the discarded paper which indicates the aftermath; the belt folded in the front to indicate a courtesan and the head shaved on top to mark a mature male, the luxury of the kimono to determine wealth, the fall of a lock of hair to suggest recent activity.

The other striking feature of these pictures is how consensual the sex is. The women are shown enjoying it as much as the men, often more, as they twine their legs around the man's back and tug hard at his head with their hands. Although dildos appear and foreplay is pursued with abandon, there are very few pictures of rape or violence, although there is one powerful one in Hokusai's Young Pine Saplings while some of the same sex scenes have a disquieting sense of an older man exploiting flaccid young boys for their pleasure. It was the communication of the ecstasy, however fanciful, of heterosexual coupling which the artists mostly wanted to achieve, however.

And very good artists they were. Utamaro, whose prints of famous courtesans were regarded as the very models of sober beauty by 19th-century Western collectors, in fact produced more Shunga books and albums than non-erotic works. The British Museum has the best of them, including the Poem of the Pillow which made him famous at the time. Little is spared in the detail, or the variety of positions, but there is nothing crude in his fluid lines and his confident compositions, setting flesh against fabric and entwining the bodies in rhythmic motion. Finally he fell victim to one of the government's periodic fits of censorship, and was arrested and imprisoned not so much for the frankness of his pictures as that, in naming courtesans and signing his works, he seemed to challenge the social hierarchy. The Tokugawa government never approved the art but never totally suppressed it, although a 1722 ban on publication of salacious material did drive artists and publishers to remove their name from their works.

Most of the works on display are by the so-called ukiyo-e artists such as Utamaro, masters of the "floating world" of the pleasure quarters of Edo and Osaka. The great Hokusai is here with his celebrated picture of a lady being pleasured by an octopus, his tentacles titivating and enwrapping her. Eisho, Eisen, Kuniyoshi and Kunisada were all prolific, and proficient practitioners in the genre and the Fitzwilliam has some particularly fine examples by Katsukawa Shunsho from a period, towards the end of the 18th century, when artists deliberately restricted their palette in the interests of graphic force. The only big name missing is Hiroshige, who specialised in landscape with little interest in figurative art.

Although the cultural milieu of these works clearly derived from the pleasure quarters and the world of entertainment of the Edo of the period, Shunga was not primarily associated with prostitution and the brothel. By far the greater proportion depicted middle class couples, married or otherwise, and their stories – given in the accompanying text and speech exclamations are about sex and its practice – "You're coming too fast," says the lady in one picture, "you're being too slow," says another.

There is an element of male fantasy about this, the hope that a woman should prove as eager as himself. You can't completely remove the sense that the women are often there to satisfy the man or that many of these prints "objectify" woman. On the other hand women were clearly purchasers of the product. The books were largely borrowed from libraries, a transaction mostly in the hands of the woman of the household and, from the numbers of explicit publications expressly elaborating on the romantic novels that were so popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they were clearly aimed at a female market who would understand the references.

What comes through most from these works is the humour and humanity of them. That and their artistic quality. The craft of the woodblock produced some of the finest graphic work anywhere in the world, as the impressionists readily acknowledged. Look closely at these prints and you will see a precision in the line and a care in the way that the inks are applied that is simply astonishing.

Once photography came in and the West forced open Japan, the works were consigned to the cupboard as obscene and obsolete, part of the old world that the Japanese rulers wished to put behind them. The camera made pornography realistic and hence voyeuristic. Shunga was never that. It celebrated man's most natural activity with some of the most explicit and brilliant pictures of pleasure ever produced.

Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, British Museum, London WC1B 3DG (020 7323 8181) 3 October to 5 January; The Night of Longing: Love and Desire in Japanese prints, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (01223 332900) 1 October to 12 February

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