The art of love: Kitagawa Utamaro

A moment of exquisite subtlety

Kitagawa Utamaro: 'Lovers' (from Uta makura / The Poem of the Pillow), British Museum

"Sex, in so far as it is not a purely physiological reproductive mechanism, lies in the domain of aesthetics," observed the American poet Ezra Pound, with veracity. But it's not a truth you're likely to pick up from the average skin magazine or sex manual. Western art, meanwhile, though extremely interested in sex, has tended to avoid sexual intercourse itself. So turn to a Japanese erotic print, such as Kitagawa Utamaro's Lovers.

Social ceremony with its rules and role-playing does not stop at the bedroom door. Here are a man and a woman, joined mouth-to-mouth and crotch-to-crotch in a highly civilised and aestheticised act. The man's fan isn't lowered. Fingers delicately, fastidiously pinch.

Some Japanese sex images give their figures enormous genitals, visibly penetrating. Not so Utamaro's. The coming together of these bodies is acted out in the behaviour of their patterned clothing. Their gowns are tucked and interleaved, entwining and sheathing. The lines of fabric surge in rolling, rocking curves, breaking and cascading in fractured or liquid folds.

Every shape and gesture is perfectly clear a carefully performed, separately appreciated sensation. There are points of exquisite subtlety. See how the man's right eye is just visible, but almost indistinguishable from the edge of the woman's hairdo. These are connoisseurs of flesh.