Octopus Ogles Lady Pearl Diver in Amusing Shunga Show

The French writer Edmond de Goncourt made an unusual purchase in 1863: “some albums of Japanese obscenities” which delighted, amused and charmed him.

These were not truly obscene, Goncourt said, because they disappeared “into fantasy.” On the evidence of a new exhibition at the British Museum, London, that seems to be a fair judgment.

“Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art” (Oct. 3 to Jan. 5, 2014) is billed as the most comprehensive show staged of sexually explicit Far Eastern imagery. And, yes, some of it is so weird as to seem downright surreal to an occidental eye.

A print from 1814 by Hokusai shows a naked female pearl diver having complicated sexual relations with two octopuses, one of them gigantic, with eyes that stare out at the viewer.

We are dealing here with a culture that draws lines in different places from those in which they have traditionally been placed by the West.

In the European tradition, a pivotal moment came in 1524 when Pope Clement VII banned a series of Renaissance prints that graphically represented sexual positions. Since then, there has been a boundary between art and pornography. Only a few Western artists, such as Jeff Koons and Aubrey Beardsley, have attempted to cross it.

In Asia, things were different. “Shunga” -- or “spring pictures” -- were popular with a wide Japanese audience for centuries. One of the masters of the woodblock print, Kitagawa Utamaro, seems to have produced more shunga than any subject.

Bridal Gifts

Shunga albums were presented to brides before their weddings. One of the first gifts given to Commodore Matthew Perry on his arrival with a U.S. fleet in 1854, a mission that led to the “opening” of Japan, was “a box of obscene paintings.”

Some westerners viewed shunga with disapproval. Others were fascinated. Picasso loved eastern erotica and was influenced by it. You can see what Pablo liked: Japanese artists treated sex with humor and gusto.

Shunga is a genre in which genitalia often take the same prominent role as saints in an altarpiece or apples in a Cezanne still life. While that’s fun for a while, it’s a problem for an exhibition of this size.

Just as a large display of pictures of cows in landscapes or fish on plates would grow monotonous, so does this exhaustive -- and, from the scholarly point of view, excellent -- examination of oriental lovemaking.

Courtesan Congress

True, the shunga artists exercised ingenuity in varying the genre: There are images of congress between humans and ghosts, courtesans and Dutch traders, older and younger Buddhist monks, plus versions of literary classics such as the “Tale of Genji.”

One work by Kuniyoshi from about 1833 blends shunga and landscape. It represents a lake with temple, trees and sailing boat. Instead of an island, there is a huge open vulva mirrored as if in a washing tub.

I found myself enjoying the non-explicit images more. The most discreet print from Utamaro’s erotic masterpiece, an album entitled “The Poem of the Pillow” (1788), is the most beautiful.

It shows two lovers intertwined in a teahouse on an autumn evening, the tenderness of their embrace echoed by the folds of their kimonos. Maybe it’s just that I’m still under the lingering influence of Pope Clement VII.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater, Martin Gayford on European art, Hephzibah Anderson on books, Frederik Balfour on Hong Kong art and Elin McCoy on wine.