3 October 2013 – 5 January 2014
Parental guidance advised

Exhibition closed

Supported by Shunga in Japan LLP

Part of Japan400

Recommend this exhibition

Discover Japanese prints, paintings and drawings like no other.

Produced from 1600 to 1900 and banned in Japan for much of the 20th century, these explicit and beautifully detailed erotic paintings, prints and books inspired Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsley, Rodin and Picasso.

Mostly created by the artists of the ukiyo-e or ‘floating world’ school, these popular works were known as shunga, – literally  ‘spring pictures’. They appealed to all classes in Japan for almost 300 years, and to men and women alike. Frequently tender and humorous, they celebrate sexual pleasure in all its forms in brilliantly coloured paintings and prints, culminating with beautiful and explicit works by iconic artists Utamaro, Hokusai and Kunisada.

Within Japan, shunga has continued to influence modern forms of art, including manga, anime and Japanese tattoo art. The exhibition sheds new light on this unique art form within Japanese social and cultural history.

Video: Curator Tim Clark introduces the exhibition

Highlights from the exhibition

  • Katsukawa Shuncho, Koshoku zue juni ko (Erotic Pictures for the Twelve Months)

    Katsukawa Shuncho, Koshoku zue juni ko (Erotic Pictures for the Twelve Months), International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto

  • Torii Kiyonaga, Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve)

    Torii Kiyonaga, Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), c.1785

  • Kitagawa Utamaro, Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow)

    Kitagawa Utamaro, Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), 1788

  • Katsukawa Shuncho, Koshoku zue juni ko (Erotic Pictures for the Twelve Months)

    Katsukawa Shuncho, Koshoku zue juni ko (Erotic Pictures for the Twelve Months), International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto

  • Sugimura Jihei, untitled erotic pictures

    Sugimura Jihei, untitled erotic pictures, c.1681-1687, Sebastian Izzard, New York

  • Chobunsai Eishi, Shunsho ikkoku, painted handscroll

    Chobunsai Eishi, Shunsho ikkoku, painted handscroll, c. 1790s, Scott Johnson, Kyoto


‘the most explicit and brilliant pictures of pleasure ever produced’  The Independent
Full review 

‘splendid’ ★★★★ Guardian
Full review 

★★★★ The Telegraph
Full review 

Search the collection online

See all Shunga works in the British Museum 

Opening event: Joan Bakewell on her changing reactions to Shunga

When I first received the invitation from Neil MacGregor to open the exhibition Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art, I did wonder why. And once I had seen the exhibition, I did wonder rather more why. I decided that it was a good idea for an 80-year-old grandmother to draw the veil on these extraordinary works. But more seriously, I did have reservations, which I discussed with Tim Clark, to do with my cultural background. I am a woman who has lived her life in the era of Western feminism and I wanted to know about women’s place in shunga – how they were treated and whether they deserved equal rights and respect as the man.

A lot has happened in my brain since then because I have been on a huge learning curve about these remarkable works. And I have had many things that have helped me. First of all Tim himself and the team who put together this remarkable exhibition have made it wonderfully clear. And the catalogue, having read the wonderful essays, I came to see the exhibition with a new frame of mind. And finally of course I had to look and see with my own eyes without prejudice – without that Western cultural prejudice.

I had the good fortune of going to Japan last year for the first time, which was an eye-opening visit, and I grew to love both the Buddhist tradition of the temples and the Shinto religion, and I could perceive then that there were two prevailing strands of thinking about human life and human destiny. I think it seems to me that the Shinto attitude to life – more visceral, more full of pleasure, more direct – was important in what made shunga so attractive.

So I have been on this learning curve, learning to set aside my Western attitudes and put that culture (which of course I love and am devoted to) aside in order to inhabit the kind of mind that gave birth to and enjoyed shunga, and that has been so rewarding. I hope you will all make that journey because you will learn and appreciate that this is a world of beauty – it is guilt-free, it is shame-free, it is hypocrisy-free. It rejoices in human bonding of every kind without judgement. It is exquisite to look at and I only invite you now to join me on that particular journey…