James Polchin at The Smart Set:
Some of the final works you encounter in this show are drawings and phallic sex toys from the collection of George Witt, a 19th century British doctor and later banker who amassed a large collection of contemporary and ancient erotic art. He left his entire collection to the British Museum in 1865, where the trustees placed it in its newly established “Secretum” or secret museum in the museum’s vaults. Stowed away with Witt’s collection were other sexual artifacts the museum acquired in the years to come and where its shunga art was hidden for decades, out of sight except for those well-educated men from Oxford and Cambridge who could handle such material.
A year before the Comstock Act, and about the same time as Hall was wandering the shops of Yokohama, American art critic James Jackson Jarve, writing in Art Journal, decried shunga as “inconceivably monstrous, betraying a liking for the absolute vices as no European nation would outwardly tolerate in any condition of society.” Such criticism, like others of the era, liked these works to the moral flaws of the Japanese. The aesthetics became a symptom of the nation.
The history of looking and not looking at shunga is deeply intertwined with our fantasies and fears about boundaries, those undulating lines between West and the East, between pornography and art. In his journal in 1863, Goncourt described his excitement with some new albums of “Japanese obscenities” he recently purchased: “They delight me, amuse me, and charm my eyes. I look on them as being beyond obscenity, which is there, yet seems not be there, and which I do not see, so completely does it disappear into fantasy.”