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MFA Exposes Japanese Erotic Art

This article is more than 12 years old.

In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts owns one of the largest collections of Japanese art in the world. Holdings include thousands of woodblock prints and paintings, but also a trove of erotic scrolls that have been kept under lock and key for decades. Until now.

WBUR's Andrea Shea has more on the hidden collection that's being exhibited at the MFA...naughty bits and all..for the very first time.

A word of warning: this report includes talk of a suggestive nature.

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ANDREA SHEA: Not all the screens and scrolls are 'naughty' in the MFA show 'Drama and Desire.' It actually highlights a Japanese genre known as 'Ukiyo-e.' Crisp, cartoon-like paintings depict the 'Floating World'...a dreamy place populated by geishas and courtesans posing and cavorting in mid-19th century Edo, now Tokyo.

ANNE NISHIMURA MORSE: They would make their way down the boulevard in a very tantalizing, very dramatic walk and all these men are just gawking at them, they can't possibly ever hope to entertain one of these women or be entertained by her.

ANDREA SHEA: That's Anne Nishimura Morse, Curator of Japanese Art at the MFA. She says some of Japan's most famous artists painted the screens and scrolls in this gallery. They found inspiration in real-life red light districts that flourished during the military era. But some of the blissed-out male clients in the more explicit works appear larger-than-life.

ANNE NISHIMURA MORSE: When you look at these erotic images you realize that no one has anatomy quite like (laughs) has been expressed in these scrolls so they're purely fantastic images they're not representations of what happened specifically in the pleasure quarters but it is for these very private works of art, to let someone's imagination run wild.

ANDREA SHEA: Nishimura Morse says the wildest hand scrolls were indeed kept private in their day...when samurais, merchants, bureaucrats...and even the Imperial family...commissioned them for personal entertainment.

ANNE NISHIMURA MORSE: It is not something that they would've advertised but on the other hand it's nothing something they were terribly ashamed of either.

ANDREA SHEA: Out of shame or not...curators at the MFA kept the racy images to themselves, too, after Boston physician William Sturgis Bigelow deposited his huge Japanese art collection at the museum in 1909. Nishimura Morse says the erotic scrolls...and hundreds more modest Ukiyo-es...were locked away in what she refers to as the 'dirty cabinet.' Only male curators in the Japanese Art Department had the key.

ANNE NISHIMURA MORSE: It was not only that you had to be male, you had to be married and male and evidently one of my predecessors when he got married got official permission to actually now be able to go into the cabinet.

ANDREA SHEA: Finally Nishimura Morse herself got in after being promoted to Associate Curator in 1992.

ANNE NISHIMURA MORSE: The head of my department said I guess you're going to be here for awhile and he said you are now the keeper of the key. So I became the keeper of the key.

ANDREA SHEA: And Nishimura Morse, the first ever female curator of Japanese Art at the museum, got to work, examining and cataloging the 700 secret paintings.

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ANDREA SHEA: They're perfectly preserved, having been in dark storage for so long. Kimonos...brilliant with vivid lines, colors and textures...practically pop off the gallery walls. The white-faced courtesans were like pin-up girls...or super models...according to Nishimura Morse. But a pretty face only got you so far. These women needed to be skilled poets, dancers, musicians and arbiters of high class fashion.

ANNE NISHIMURA MORSE: You will notice throughout this exhibition when they aren't taking their clothes off they do have very stylish robes on and in fact in many of the erotic scenes you'll find that they very rarely remove all of their clothes because the clothes themselves say very much about the woman.

ANDREA SHEA: Even clothed, though, the women in these works assume some novel positions. Visitors to the gallery are fascinated. Lu Rattay drove in from Ashfield.

LU RATTAY: They're charming. I'm not shocked by them.

ANDREA SHEA: Rattay's husband John is shocked, but not by the explicit images.

JOHN RATTAY: The main idea is that there should've been such a huge collection of any sort of material that then is not exploited for 100 years. I mean I think that is really overpowering. And that adds to the mystery and the sense of arbitrariness of taste.

DAN WHITIKER: I'm Dan Whitiker, and I'm from Wakefield, Massachusetts. I don't know why they put them away I don't find them shocking at all except maybe there's on scroll at the beginning of the show there I can see why they wouldn't have it on display. It's a little on the almost pornographic side.

ANDREA SHEA: That's why some museums have chosen not to display that scroll. Before opening at the MFA...where they're letting it all hang out...'Drama and Desire' was shown...to varying degrees...at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum.

JENNIFER CASLER PRICE: Boston is a much more liberal town than Fort Worth Texas.

ANDREA SHEA: Jennifer Casler Price curates at the Kimbell, and says she omitted the raciest scrolls because of visiting school groups, among other reasons. She acknowledges the images aren't 'true-to-life.'

JENNIFER CASLER PRICE: There's realism and there's realism, you know there is a certain exaggeration that one sees and maybe that's considered not realistic but you can certainly see what (giggles) what is being portrayed and we just didn't want to invite controversy.

ANDREA SHEA: Even when the show traveled to Japan curators opted to cover up the bawdiest bits. But at the MFA curator Anne Nishimura Morse fully exposed the scrolls because she says they represent the ethos of their time. She elicits a Buddhist sentiment popular in Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries.

ANNE NISHIMURA MORSE: Life is so short so why don't we live it up while we can, so that was the concept and again it was the sense of play that's going if we're going to be in this tightly organized society we're going to poke back, we're going to have fun. And that's what you get in all of these paintings, that sense of pleasure that sense of why not, you know, why not enjoy it.

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ANDREA SHEA: The hand scrolls will be enjoyed even more this October...when curator Anne Nishimura Morse will unfurl a few more uncensored sections. Then they head to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

The audio for this story will be available Monday, October 8th after 10.00 a.m.

This program aired on October 8, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.


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