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Sunday 3 November 2013

Phallic Satire

When I mentioned diminutive representations of male genitalia a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about serious art. When it comes to cartoons and caricatures it’s a different matter altogether. This was apparent at an exhibition I went to at the British Museum last week called Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art. Shunga are woodblock-printed images depicting erotic scenes, and many of the examples were of a comical nature with outrageously exaggerated anatomical details. One of the wall displays quoted Narisue Tachibana as saying, as long ago as 1254: “The Old Masters depict the size of the thing far too large... If it were depicted the actual size there would be nothing of interest.”

The highlight of the exhibition for me was the section dealing with shunga parodies. Alongside illustrated books on such perfectly innocent topics as etiquette, cooking and geography, there were X-rated parodies in which the words and images were subtly altered using standard schoolboy formulas such as “sounds a bit like penis” or “looks a bit like a vagina”. Probably the most outrageous example was entitled “Penis Parinirvana”, dating from the mid-19th century (the image shown here comes from the museum’s website, because photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibition). The word “Parinirvana” is used to describe the death of the Buddha, and it’s a common subject in Buddhist art. A typical example is this one from Wikimedia Commons. As you can see, Penis Parinirvana is pretty much the same thing, except that the Buddha and several of the mourners take the form of giant sex organs!
With its combination of sexual imagery and religious irreverence, you might think Penis Parinirvana would fall foul of the official censors. Apparently, however, although shunga were technically illegal, the authorities almost always turned a blind eye – the only time they enforced the law was if a politician or other public figure was satirized!

There is another image in the British Museum collection (although not on public display) that is very reminiscent of Penis Parinirvana: “Small figures gathered around a giant phallus”. This engraving is the work of Vivant Denon – a name that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the Louvre in Paris, since one of the museum’s three wings (the one with the Mona Lisa) is named after him. Denon’s fame rests on the fact that he was the first director of the Louvre, but he also produced a number of erotic engravings in the 1790s entitled Oeuvre Priapique. This particular example is a parody of several popular engravings of the time that depicted beached whales. In Denon’s version, which has a distinctly cryptozoological feel, the beached creature is an enormous phallus!

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