After 200 years, Japan's exiled erotica finds a home in Rotterdam museum

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The Independent Online

In an age of malfunctioning primetime bras and rampant internet porn, a collection of 200-year-old Japanese woodblock prints has proved it still has the power to get the censors' hearts beating faster.

In an age of malfunctioning primetime bras and rampant internet porn, a collection of 200-year-old Japanese woodblock prints has proved it still has the power to get the censors' hearts beating faster.

The prints sound as harmless as Horlicks but Shunga, meaning "spring pictures" were the Japanese pornography of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Made from woodblocks, the images of couples grappling in various states of romantic repose are the forebears of the erotic Manga comics and are today traded among the world's art collectors.

Now Shunga forms the centerpiece of what is being billed the "first chronological overview of Japanese erotic art", not in Japan, where it is illegal to import them, but in the Netherlands.

Wim Pijbes, director of Rotterdam's Kunsthal gallery, which is hosting the Lust of spring: Erotic fantasies of the Edo era exhibition, told The Art Newspaper that he "can't think of any major American museum putting shunga on" and that it had been "notoriously absent" in past Royal Academy catalogues.

But it is the timorousness of Shunga's land of origin that raises most eyebrows. "It would be unthinkable to present Shunga in a Japanese museum, because pubic hair is out of the question," Mr Pijbes said.

No major gallery in Japan has run an exhibition of the prints, which sometimes feature outsize genitalia, although smaller private galleries occasionally risk the censors' ire, usually with the help of strategically placed stickers and warning signs to nervous parents.

A spokeswoman for the Vanilla gallery in Tokyo, which ran a small display of Shunga last year, said they hid the sexual organs with black paper. "We were demonstrating that we abide by the law, just in case of a police raid."

Importers face similar problems. David Caplan, who runs the Mita arts gallery in Tokyo, said: "It can't be done. We've had shipments stopped by Tokyo customs. "They used to have young people who blacked out the genitals with pens. Imagine what doing that all day that would do to you."

Although the pubic hair taboo has faded in Japan, thanks to a 1990s boom for "hair nudes" or models in full-frontal poses, shunga still has the power to stir, a phenomenon that sits oddly with the country's usually liberal attitude to pleasures of the flesh: eye-popping erotica can be freely found in most cities and convenience stores stock hardcore porn on the bottom shelves.

"The paradoxes in Shunga art in Japan are great," said Ofer Shagan, an art dealer who claims to have one of the biggest private collections of Shunga in the world. "I am hosting an exhibition in Israel later this year but if I want to take pieces out of Japan I have to fill out forms and it will take over a year to get them out because the authorities consider it a national treasure. But if I try to import from London I can't because it is pornographic."

Mr Caplan says the origins of the confusion are bureaucratic. "The customs department is controlled by the finance ministry, which is narrow-minded and conservative. They're dead against anything erotic. The police are controlled by the justice ministry, and they tend to take a more liberal attitude."

Sometime soon the authorities may sort out this mess, but in the meantime confusion reigns, meaning gallery owners routinely self-censor and look on enviously as other countries steal their thunder. "I have a very high contact in the police, the No3, who is a very good friend," Mr Shagan said. "He says he would love to help change the law, but of course, he won't."

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