NCMA guest blog post: Out of War, the Organic Beauty of Ogromna

Ogromna. What’s in a name? By any other, this imposing work by sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard would likely be just as beguiling. And the artist herself tells us not to read too much into the work’s title, apart from its linguistic nod to femininity.

At first blush Ogromna’s indelicate silhouette seems anything but. Femininity, though, is so much more than the figural. It’s imbedded in a gendered history that is social, personal—even literary. So to me Ogromna is inseparable from the artist’s own memory, irrespective of intent. Von Rydingsvard was born as the Second World War was raging into its third year in Deensen, Germany. Exiled from her homeland after the German occupation of Poland, the artist as a young girl lived with her family in eight different postwar refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 1950. But Von Rydingsvard’s early history seems to have had an effect—not least of all on her masterly aesthetic sensibilities.

NCMA guest blog post: Childe Hassam and Celia Thaxter’s Garden

If you’ve seen even just one of Childe Hassam’s brilliant paintings in the NCMA's American Impressionist exhibition, then you’ll know that Appledore Island’s timeless blooms—seen through Hassam’s eyes—are transporting. Transporting to another time when poetess and perennial salonnière Celia Thaxter played hostess to a circle of 19th-century creatives from her seasonal home in Maine’s Isles of Shoals. 

Celia’s summertime salon on remote Appledore Island was renowned not only for its cerebral conversation and elite guest list, but also for its inspiring natural environs: a breezy coastline, rocky seaside outcroppings, and of course, her garden. Her garden brimming with color: poppies, mignonette, hollyhock. 

Linnaeus Tripe's Burma

THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART-- By the latter half of the eighteenth century, the British East India Company had gained dominion over governmental affairs on the Indian subcontinent. Such began a period of Company rule in India; a private hegemony in exchange for checked territorial autonomy – precursor to the British Raj that would spring up from the aftermath of the Indian rebellion in 1857. In London, the Company’s stockholders lined their pockets with vast fortunes, as did their agents abroad through calculated alliances with the Hindu maharajas and Muslim nawabs of the subcontinent’s subordinate princely states. For the English, India was the land of untested opportunity.

Into this climate of promise, Linnaeus Tripe arrived on the South Indian coast in 1840. A young and unassuming lieutenant from Devon, Tripe was on the subcontinent for more than ten years before experimenting with the artistic medium that was to become his legacy.  Returning to England on leave in the early 1850s, Tripe began to experiment with photography, just ten years after the camera’s first commercial introduction. Upon resuming his post with the East India Company in Bangalore in 1854, Tripe photographed for the first time more than sixty temples; a collection which later debuted at the Madras Exhibition of Raw Products, Arts, and Manufactures of Southern India. The series, which was widely praised, cemented Tripe’s reputation and ultimately gained him an invitation to accompany an official East India Company expedition to Burma departing in June of 1855.

An impressive retrospective of Tripe’s photography now on view at the Met draws heavily on his work from this period. In Burma, Linnaeus Tripe came into his own as photographer, documentarian, and artiste. Tripe practiced a kind of pragmatic photography whose quiet attention to artistic subtleties left an indelible mark not only on remembrances of a monumental empire but the history of the medium itself. His deft and innovative maneuvering of early camera equipment produced photographs of rare quality. Extensive panoramas of architectural detail are testament to the photographer’s level of craftsmanship, as he achieved a high degree of difficulty with enviable finesse. And as Company photographer, Tripe executed his mission to document previously unphotographed sites of historical and religious importance with tremendous professional precision: he created a catalogue of colonial imagery whose value lives on as history. Yet Tripe’s photographs from Burma are more than mere marvel of technical aptitude or matter of historical record; they are sublimely beautiful.

The mood is subdued, almost melancholic. The eerie sepia and gold hues of photography circa 1855 cast the Burmese landscape in a kind of necromantic light. Burmese streets empty of life: silent, ageless streets. Streets leading through markets to monuments, stupas, and temples.  Streets from which one gets the sense of bygone days – days before the Burmese Days of the British Raj – yet eerily frozen in a kind of timeless pallor.

I especially enjoyed the curator’s note accompanying the image of a weathered wooden pagoda with much of its roofing absent. Tripe observed through his lens, the text tells us, that the Burmese were more intent upon making new merit than restoring older monuments to their former splendor. This observation strikes me as especially timeless. That local culture favors construction over restoration is in many ways conspicuous in modern Myanmar where a gradient of decay hints at Burmese society’s penchant for the shiny and new.  

I think what is most amazing is that Tripe’s photography from Burma defies the traditional colonial lens, trading in the hegemonic eye of judgment for a subaltern empathy that elevates beauty to a universal standard. Perhaps it is the absence of human form – whose inclusion might have shifted the narrative from unbiased observer to indulgent orientalist – that affords Tripe such an unprejudiced aesthetic. Yet somehow these lonely landscapes are anything but sterile. Rather; they suggest the impression of a vivid society that – on any other day – would inhabit them.

That an unknown photographer would be plucked from obscurity for such a major retrospective is tremendous and the curators are to be commended for bringing such worthwhile photography to light. Though the modest nature of the exhibition itself is not likely to see the Met flooded with long lines, it is an exhibition that will linger in the mind of the viewer long after the museum’s doors are closed. The works of Linnaeus Tripe can without a doubt be appreciated by a modern audience – whether for their historical merits, their artistry – or both. 

Witness at a Crossroads: Photographer Marc Riboud in Asia

THE RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART-- In 1955, a youthful Marc Riboud embarked eastward on a journey through Asia in post-war transition. Armed with his Leica and trademark eye for observation, Riboud captured in his photographs not only politics and culture, but also beauty, humor, and humanity. It is the photographs from this trip across Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Japan, and China, which comprise ‘Witness at a Crossroads,’ the fantastic collection of Riboud’s works now on view at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Though Riboud’s work took him through lands regarded by the west as a mysterious Shangri-la, his lens captured not only beauty but also truths of the human condition. A founding member of the collective Magnum (along with Robert Capa and David Seymour), Marc Riboud developed his craft under the tutelage of Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographic great of an earlier generation. Like Cartier-Bresson, Riboud’s works united journalism and fine art.

Though the entire collection is captivating, for me, the highlight was a series of prints from China taken during the earlier half of the Mao era. Arriving in China in 1957, Riboud became one of the first European photographers to gain access to the Peoples’ Republic in the throes of Soviet-inspired social revolution and land reform. Witnessing firsthand the tumult of a transitional society, Riboud used his Leica to showcase individual humanity against the backdrop of an increasingly austere communitarian lifestyle. In one image, a dignified elderly woman walks down a dusty street, her glamorous coat and white fox fur striking a cord of descent among a population of uniform-wearing proletarians. Her sartorial appearance and unapologetic individuality are presented in stark contrast to the anonymity that characterized China’s urban areas circa 1957.

Riboud’s photographs of Japan close the exhibition on a lighthearted note. A series of prints taken during Japan’s National Photography Day are testament to Riboud’s elegant sense of humor. In one photograph, scores of amateur photographers scramble over one another to shoot catalogue models posing in a rather precarious outdoor setting. Images of immaculately dressed Japanese women point at the post-war influence of Western culture within the fiercely nationalistic Japan of the earlier half of the twentieth century.

Though the exhibit’s introductory text alludes to the collection’s wider cultural context in a “period of great cultural and political transition in the [Central and East Asian] region,” I found myself somewhat disappointed in the face of the Rubin’s usually comprehensive label copy. A viewer well acquainted with the finer details of the transitional politics of this period will bring her own insight to the weight of Riboud’s seminal work as an artifact of international history. Those of us less savvy on the subject, however, could have benefited from a higher degree of detail. This shortcoming aside, however, the exhibition is a must-see. I walked away with the sense of having been, if only for a short while, a voyeur of a beautiful and heartbreaking array of history.  

The exhibition is on view through 23 March 2015. 

Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion


Chinese-American archetypes are peppered throughout the national imagination. From Arnold Genthe’s century-old Chinatown photographs to the familiar literary caricature of Lee Chong in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, clichéd imagery of Chinese Americans through history reflects shifting political and social attitudes on a national scale. What was the experience of immigration like for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese Americans facing racism and exclusion in nineteenth and twentieth century America? What did it mean to make a life in the US? How was Chinese American identity shaped by politics and trade, exclusion and inclusion?

The exhibition ‘Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion’ is in essence a tale of identity formation as Chinese immigrants weathered the tumultuous tides of US-China relations and inconstant immigration policy from the eighteenth century to contemporary times.  The New York Historical Society has created in its exhibition a complex tale of the shifting status of people of Chinese origin in American history.

The story begins in the eighteenth century as a tale of commerce. American merchants ventured to China seeking exotic spices, porcelain bone china, and silk as early as 1784 on the Empress of China, a vessel whose likeness is depicted on a decorative fan on display in the exhibition. Though the young American nation approached the Chinese with deference during this period, the later nineteenth century was characterized by animosity on the diplomatic level, first with the Opium Wars during which China was forced to relinquish its restrictions on Western imports, and later during the wave of Chinese immigration during the era of the railroads in the US.

By 1880, there were more than 100,000 Chinese living in the US. Though many were male laborers employed to build the western section of the first transcontinental railroad, women, merchants, diplomats, and students were also among the Chinese American population of the nineteenth century. Animosity toward Chinese laborers, fueled by a series of anti-Chinese riots, however, found its way into policy. On May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur; thereby constituting one of the most momentous restrictions on immigration in the nation’s history. Under this legislation, Chinese laborers (and those individuals of Chinese origin suspected of seeking work in manual labor) were prevented from entering the US; a law that remained on the books until its repeal by the Magnuson Act in 1943.

The Chinese Exclusion Act made life difficult not only for those Chinese seeking to immigrate; American citizens of Chinese descent already living in the United States were denied reentry and as a result, many families were broken up. Around the midpoint of the exhibition, the curatorial focus shifts toward the hardships faced by Chinese Americans as fallout from exclusionary immigration laws and practices.

By the early twentieth century, incoming migrants from China were routinely sent to detention barracks on Angel Island, off the coast of San Francisco. Large facsimiles of identity card documents that all Chinese Americans were required to carry – even national starlets like Anna May Wong – accompany life size reproductions of detention facility accommodations where immigrants awaited news of their status.  By the early 20th century, Chinese newcomers to the US were finding ways around exclusionary laws by claiming relation to Chinese American merchant families. This practice is detailed in the exhibition’s section on ‘paper sons’; i.e. young Chinese men who sought entry to the US on purchased identity papers.

The Historical Society’s coverage of the early centuries of the Chinese in America is excellent. The exhibition showcases a variety of artifacts from a reproduction of an opium ball to mid-nineteenth century artistic depictions of Chinese theater and an 1883 newspaper article representing the first recorded usage of the term ‘Chinese American’. 

Unfortunately the exhibition unravels somewhat around the post-war period. Though the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 ushered in a significant change in both US-China relations and public reception of the Chinese American population, the exhibit shifts away from a broader historical perspective in favor of personal narrative.  While some may find a series of cartoons recounting the familial history of Bronx native Amy Chin and her ancestors to be endearing, it seemed to me that though the narrative spanned several decades it did so while glossing over critical detail. For example, how did the evolving relationship between Maoist China and the United States in the Nixon era affect Chinese Americans’ perception of their country of origin? How was a reaction to the Cultural Revolution and communism refracted in the formation of Chinese American identity and group consciousness?

Overall, the exhibition hits its mark, though we are left with some unanswered questions about what this centuries-old history means to Chinese Americans today. Riding the wave of the increasingly popular subject of identity politics, the New York Historical Society has created in ‘Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion’ a sound and thought-provoking starting point for productive discussion.

The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide

THE RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART-- An exemplary and unusual series of album leaf paintings from 18th century China are the focal point of The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide at the Rubin Museum of Art. This rare collection of paintings, about which many questions remain, was believed to have been commissioned by a Mongolian noble during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A guide to the meditation practice of Sarvavid Vairochana, a celestial Buddha of Tibetan origin, the 54-leaf album was first brought to the West from Inner Mongolia in 1923 following its acquisition by a Christian missionary. It is now recognized as one of only two known visual depictions of its kind.

Viewed by practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism as the Bliss Body of Siddhartha Gautama, Sarvavid Vairochana is conceptualized as the primordial center of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. With the aid of the album on view, students of Vairochana’s meditation practice during the Qing Dynasty were guided through several stages of meditation involving visualization, the recitation of mantras, prostrations, and the practice of sadhana. These elements of practice are beautifully depicted in the paintings which comprise this esoteric album. With shockingly bright colors and minute detail, the works are undoubtedly as beautiful as they are intriguing.

The curatorial treatment of the exhibition is masterful, presenting to viewers in tandem both insights into the religious symbolism of each painting, as well as clues to the album’s wider historical and anthropological context. As we walk through the exhibition, we learn of the scholarly debate surrounding cross-cultural influences to be noted in the artwork. For example, while Buddhist practitioners are most commonly pictured in Tibetan Buddhist dress, at times they appear in the religious vestments of Qing-era India, China, and Mongolia. The curators tell us this inconsistency raises questions not only about the album’s origin but also about the trade in religious, artistic, and cultural ideas that characterized the region in the 18th century.

Historically restricted to oral transmission among an initiated Buddhist elite, Vairochana’s esoteric meditation teachings are here rendered in visual form. In addition to appreciating the arresting beauty of the paintings themselves, the thought-provoking textual commentary provided us by the Rubin serves to position the works both within the religious and historical context. Collections of this nature are rare indeed.

Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair

THE FIELD MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY-- The Field Museum of Natural History’s ‘Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair’ showcases an inspiring array of artifacts which became part of the Museum’s collection in its early years both as a museum and as one of the world’s leading natural history research institutions. The exhibition celebrates in these artifacts two milestones: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the formative years of the Columbian Museum of Chicago (which later became the Field Museum).

Designed by its American hosts to spotlight the United States’ industrial and territorial achievements on the four hundredth anniversary of the journey of Columbus to the New World, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition signaled the entrée of a new world power in North America. Embodying the spirit of emergent American exceptionalism, the Columbian Exposition surpassed previous expositions of the Victorian period in scale and splendor.  In addition to the tens of buildings devoted to the American project, many foreign nations sent delegations to construct their own exhibitions on the grounds at Jackson Park in Chicago.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was undoubtedly one of the most magnificent spectacles of the nineteenth century. With 65,000 exhibits in more than 200 buildings spanning 600 acres, the ‘White City’ was a breathtaking sight to behold. A $47 million feat of architecture and of electricity, the Columbian Exposition transformed not only the city of Chicago, but also set the tone for future advancements in science and industry. 27 million people attended and were exposed to the most progressive thinking and cutting-edge technology of the era.

Sadly, the Field’s ‘Opening the Vaults’ does little to capture the magnitude and historical impact of this monumental event. Though the exhibition is nonetheless an estimable attempt to display historically important objects (and indeed, the beautifully restored museum display cases are one of its best features) and the curators are to be commended for their willingness to engage critical questions, it is yet fraught with problems. 

The exhibition begins on solid footing with an introduction accompanied by an array of artifacts – entry tickets, a logbook, and a piece of machinery whose purpose remains unknown (the exhibition asks visitors to contact the curators if they have any clue to the item’s original use). An enormous Japanese earthen tea jar and zoological skeleton, however, lack context in an introduction which, overall, falls short of conveying to visitors what the Columbian Exposition meant to Chicago and perhaps more importantly, what the chance to attend the Columbian Exposition meant to fairgoers who came from destinations near and far to enjoy what was regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The exhibition is at its best in displays focusing on the elaborate botanical and geological concessions which were indeed a highlight at the Exposition itself. Exhibition text notes that though the modern day Field Museum’s mission is to promote conservation and sustainability, the institution at its founding in 1893 embodied the Victorian spirit of industry. Magnificent and costly displays showcased raw mineral products, celebrating mining and forestry, and demonstrating a multiplicity of commercial and industrial uses for natural products. Hats made of taxidermal birds, gloves made from sea sponges, and lace from tree bark are all excellent examples of how Victorian era vendors peddled their wares to fairgoers while industrial booths created a trade fair of sorts for oil and mining companies.

The final section of ‘Opening the Vaults’; a series of displays devoted to the anthropological aspects of the Columbian Exposition, trains a critical eye on the ethics of ethnographic showcase in the Victorian period. World’s fairs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided an international forum through which power and culture relations were played out in a constructed public environment. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was no exception. The event was, we learn, ultimately the site of appropriation, racialized power hierarchies, colonial construction, and orientalism in which the familiar West was contrasted with the alterity of the East; organized along colonial and later post-colonial lines. In this assessment, the curators are exactly right. The Columbian Exposition arrived at the height of the age of empire; colonial powers were engaged in extractive agendas in Africa and Asia, further accelerating the race to industrialization and deepening an already fortified racial hierarchy. The world in 1893 was one of entrenched inequality, not only for citizens of non-Western nations but also for women, non-whites, immigrants, laborers, and the disabled, among others, in America.

What is troubling, however, is that the curators go beyond historical analysis, applying a modern standard of ethics to judge the institutions of our nation’s past. In so doing, they miss the point that the 1893 Columbian Exposition, though undoubtedly a product of its time, did lay the foundations for the development of modern science and progressive thinking which came later in the 20th century. The development of nationalism, a process occurring largely in tandem with industrialization, saw the emergence of new jockeying on the international stage for access to the benefits of globalism and ‘progress’. Exhibitions in the late nineteenth century not only served as entertainment, but also as forums for intellectual exchange and stages on which new conceptions of international community were vetted.  Therefore, despite the embrace of orientalist colonial hierarchies along the Columbian Exposition’s Midway Plaisance, the exhibition also served as the site of constructive political and cultural identity production.

Perhaps one of the best examples of social progress at the Columbian Exposition – which sadly was not mentioned at all in ‘Opening the Vaults’ – was the groundbreaking Japanese national concession on the ‘Wooded Isle,’ a location considered to be prime real estate in the White City. On invitation from the Fair’s organizers, the Japanese Meiji government sent a delegation from Tokyo at unprecedented expense to represent the nation of Japan in Chicago. A curatorial team under the direction of renowned art historian and nationalist Okakura Kakuzō developed the Japanese exhibition as a means of promulgating national identity through cultural artifacts. It was Japan’s project at the fair, filtered through Okakura’s own political vision, that the Japanese national agenda made its way into an underlying political discourse at Chicago as a nationally-constructed identity was reified among an international audience. 

The Japanese concession at the 1893 Columbian Exposition put Japan on equal footing with the United States and its counterparts in Western Europe. It was an example in which a non-Western nation was not only invited to build its own exhibit, but it was given free rein to communicate to fairgoers a message about the nation – one in which Japan is portrayed as sophisticated, developed, and a political equal to its Western counterparts. Objects from the Japanese concession of 1893 exist within the Field Museum’s collection and had the curators chosen to include them, it could have provided a crucial counterpoint to the nuanced and complex issue of ethnography at the Columbian Exposition. Also not mentioned was the ground-breaking World’s Congress of Religions, a conference  organized as part of the 1893 Fair which is now recognized as the first instance of formal interreligious dialogue in history.

Unfortunately, ‘Opening the Vaults,’ is something of a missed opportunity. With such a rich collection of artifacts from this period, however, the Field Museum is in no way diminished by what was simply a misstep in celebrating the institution’s founding moment. In fact, even beyond the dedicated exhibition, hundreds of objects dating to the 1893 Columbian Exposition are peppered throughout the Field’s extensive permanent exhibition spaces; a complete list of which can be obtained at the information booth in Stanley Field Hall. 

Gauguin: Metamorphoses


MUSEUM OF MODERN ART-- ‘Gaugin: Metamorphoses,’ now on view at the Museum of Modern Art, is no typical art exhibition; rather, it is an enlightened call to fundamentally reframe our understanding of the famed French post-Impressionist, his artistic practice, and his times. That intellectual shift, so excellently crafted by the curators at MoMA, is something not often seen in the Impressionist wing of contemporary museums. The exhibition focuses on the latter years of Paul Gauguin’s career as the artist sought refuge from the modern mores of ‘civilized’ Europe in Tahiti – a land whose culture he romanticized as an exotic and primitive utopia. His works from this period – the more well-known figural Tahitian scenes in tandem with his much darker Symbolist sketches – together paint a picture of a man struggling to reconcile nonconformist ideas about spirituality, death, and sexual freedom.  

Paul Gauguin, master post-Impressionist painter active in the second half of the nineteenth century, is known for his unique use of color, Synthetist style, experimentation with Cloisonnism, and pastoral subject matter. Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848, but spent much of his childhood in Lima, Peru – an experience he would later site as influential in his artistic practice. Associated with the Pont Aven School in his earlier years as a full-time painter, Gauguin began to experiment in his imagery with the allure of an idyllic rural life.

The exhibition, which houses 170 works, explores Gauguin’s perception of alterity and paradise as it was reified in his artwork. As we learn in walking through its galleries, the sexualized Tahitian utopia of Gauguin’s imagination had, by the time of his arrival, already been marred by European influence. Though the idealized primitivism of the culture he found in Tahiti is showcased in many of Gauguin’s more familiar paintings of tanned native beauties, his explorations in other media – woodcut prints, ceramics, woodcarving, transfer drawings – are what cause us to linger. These works, in their darkness and emotionality reflect a more troubled, nuanced artist in Gauguin.

We learn that it was part of Gauguin’s practice to reinvent and recombine images across mediums, allowing them to metamorphose, adapt, and index new meanings. It is this practice – one from which the exhibition takes its name – through which the artist refracted the artistic traditions of other cultures. In so doing, Gauguin became one of the first European artists to give serious credence to the art of non-Western civilizations.

A focal point of ‘Metamorphoses,’ three print series created between 1889 and Gauguin’s death in 1903 serve as compendia of the artist’s processural journey. The earliest among these, the 1889 Volpini Suite is a set of eleven zincographs which revisit Gauguin’s travels in Brittany, Arles, and Martinique in the formative stages of his quest for a land untouched by the standards of modern Europe. Scrolling text wound carefully through the images as well as markedly unconventional compositions make clear the departure of Volpini from Gauguin’s other work during this time. A highlight of the series, a print entitled ‘Dramas of the Sea: Descent into the Maelstrom’ is especially powerful. In the ark-like image, a sailor grips at the edge of his vessel in the midst of a perilous storm at sea, perhaps a nod to the emotional journey of the artist himself.

Gauguin’s unfinished Noa Noa (“fragrant scent”) series, compiled upon his return to France in 1894, was meant to pair text with images borrowed from Gauguin’s treasured Tahitian work in an effort to make the series more accessible to the fastidious tastes of a nineteenth century Parisian audience. "All the joys—animal and human—of a free life are mine," He wrote. "I have escaped everything that is artificial, conventional, customary. I am entering into the truth, into nature." Noa Noa is a dark masterpiece, showcasing local Tahitian folklore and symbology as it had found its way into Gauguin’s opus through the years. Portraits of evil spirits, the Devil, and a rendering of a folkloric genesis narrative together with more classical bucolic imagery make the series truly a masterwork of retrospection.

‘Gauguin: Metamorphoses’ has repositioned the artist within the modern canon. It encourages us to appreciate Gauguin for his evolved approach to his own artistic practice, revisiting and reinventing imagery in different mediums, experimenting with novel textural and geometric usages, and borrowing the art forms of non-Western cultures. Yet despite its scope and intellectual audacity, the message of this exhibition is subtle; demonstrative rather than didactic. ‘Metamorphoses’ raises the bar for contemporary art museums and encourages viewers to challenge our preconceptions of the classics. It is, in a word, essential.

Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

THE BRITISH MUSEUM-- The Japanese erotic art form known as ‘shunga’ has for many centuries been part of the Japanese artistic tradition. Produced in Japan between 1600 and 1900, shunga  were created by artists of the ukiyo-e or ‘floating world’ school. These colorful woodblock prints depicted sexuality in many idealized and often imaginative forms. Shunga were appreciated by individuals at all strata of society and, though banned for much of the 20th century, enjoyed widespread circulation at the heyday of the style during the Edo period (1603-1867).

The British Museum’s exhibition Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art explores many facets of the style, from artistic production to the many unsuccessful attempts by various governmental entities to regulate the dissemination of shunga artworks. A monumental collection of some of the most famous works of shunga, the exhibition reinvigorates the discourse on the role of erotica in aesthetic consumption through history and suggests how the form may have influenced later Japanese artistic styles such as manga and anime.

The origins of shunga can be traced to the Heian period (794-1185) in Japan when the style developed in the form of narrative erotic handscrolls. At its inception, shunga was consumed only by the courtier class and depictions of erotic acts were constrained chiefly to monks and courtiers. The oldest examples of shunga in the exhibition date to this earlier period when scrolls were hand-painted after the Kanō school.

With the advent of woodblock printing by 1600, however, the production of shunga erupted. Widespread publishing guilds circulated shunga alongside an array of other literature. The production of small erotic books known as kōshokubon eventually drew sanction from the Tokugawa shogunate in 1661 when the first attempts were made to ban some forms of shunga. More ambitious sanctions followed a hundred years later with the Kansei Reforms of the 1790s. Even still, the art of shunga continued to flourish. On view in the exhibition, the 1785 Handscroll for the sleeve by Torii Kiyonaga depicts a series of twelve erotic couplings in a portable format that could easily be tucked into the deep sleeve of a kimono.

Among the highlights of the collection are Kitagawa Utamaro’s Lovers in an upstairs room from the series Uta makura (‘Poem of the Pillow’), circa 1788. In what is recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of erotic art in the ukiyo-e canon, a couple embraces under a transparent sheet, the bright white of their skin shown through the sensuous drapery of their clothing. Utamaro was famed for his sensual imagery, often forgoing more direct depictions of sex in favor of an exquisite intimacy and sensuality. In fact, the depiction of both male and female pleasure was characteristic of the shunga style not only in Utamaro’s works but also in that his contemporaries.

Perhaps the most widely-known ukiyo-e artist of the period, the great Katsushika Hokusai made several significant contributions to the shunga form. In the artist’s remarkable Adonis Flower Series (c.1822-1823), scrolling text surrounding images of couples engaged in blissful lovemaking give viewers insight into their intimate and often cheeky conversation. Hokusai’s most famous work of shunga, however, is The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814) – also on view in the exhibition. Depicting a zoophilic encounter between a young ama diver and two octopuses, the image was long misinterpreted as a rape scene by nineteenth century Western scholars.

Japan’s long history of isolationism, or sakoku – a policy formally in effect until the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 – may have in part contributed to the proliferation of erotic art forms like shunga that would not have been possible in nations touched by the influence of European mores. Despite what was often explicit subject matter, works of shunga were not considered pornographic or shameful; rather, they were enjoyed by male and female viewers alike. Such a practice would have been unthinkable in Europe at the time.

Herein lies perhaps the most interesting aspect of Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art. Even in contemporary times, Western viewers are hardly accustomed to viewing such explicit imagery; in fact, the topic of sexuality rarely makes its way into history and art museums despite progressive scholarly views on the subject. Yet, in Shunga we Western viewers are permitted to, for a moment, see these images not as pornography but as Japanese viewers during the Edo period may have seen them; as works of art and amusement.