09 August 2013

Samurai at Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Helmet and mask, detail.
On August 2 DH and I viewed the Samurai! exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This show, which closed August 4, featured over 150 objects from the collection of Dallas-based connoisseurs Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller. Holland Cotter reviewed the show for the New York Times.

Entrance to the show.

Helmet and armor, Matsudaira family.

Only the oldest pieces in the show, primarily helmet bowls,  actually saw combat.  From the 12th century until the Tokugawa shogunate began in the early 17th century, Japan was a militarized society, with warring clans endlessly engaged in attacking and counter-attacking each other.  The introduction of firearms in 1543  made warfare that much more brutal.  Most of the armor in the show was made after 1615, however, and, while based on historical styles, was used for ceremonial purposes and for families recalling their samurai lineage and status. 

After Ieyasu Tokugawa became the shogun, or military dictator, in 1603 and moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo), the samurai class eventually demobilized and became the governing bureaucracy. Bushido, or the way of the warrior, remained part of the culture.  Moreover, since making money was considered low-caste (merchants were at the bottom of Edo class system) former samurai reinforced their high status by becoming patrons of the arts and acolytes of refinements such as tea ceremony and calligraphy.  Samurai retained and donned their armor during special occasions.

Components of samurai kit.

The individual items needed to outfit a samurai are shown above in a rare complete set of armor and clothing from the Mori family. This set stayed intact as it was purchased by an English clergyman in the 20th century.  The set includes: silk trousers worn beneath the armor, abdomen and thigh protection, arm gauntlets, shoulder guards, shin guards, helmet, shoes and, at the right, a surcoat to wear over the armor, to keep everything dry. Another key item is the half-mask, seen to the right of the helmet, above. This protected the neck and lower face.

After the 1923 Tokyo earthquake many Japanese families had to sell heirlooms for ready cash.  It was also a time of increasing Western influence, which didn't sit well with many bureaucrats, whose ancestors had been samurai, or with reactionary nationalists such as novelist Yukio Mishima. The glorious samurai past was used, or misused, for propaganda purposes.  The exhibit doesn't really address issues of art and politics in this particular area of Japanese culture, or the path from "warrior thought" to aggresive nationalism.  To be fair, that would require another type of exhibit. Meanwhile, it was enough to contemplate so much beauty and drama, with the specter of violence at a very comfortable remove.
Samurai armor 101.

Weapons and armor had more than a simple utilitarian role.  Much has been written about early Japanese technology and skill in making the steel sword blades used by samurai, and the iron helmets and armor are also masterpieces of the metal workers art.  Surface decoration provides clan identification and, as soldiers everywhere are often superstitious, motifs encode talismanic properties, bringing good luck, or invoke protection from a deity such as the bodhisattva Fudo Myoo, the Immovable One.  Invoking a Buddhist deity may seem odd, but there was a long tradition of warrior culture in Buddhism -  somewhat like the church militant in the West - and the monks at the monastery of Mt. Hiei, for example, were famous fighters.

Unlike Western armor, Japanese armor is made of many overlapping, laced lacquered iron plates; this lamellar structure means that strong cords formed a critical part of the defensive carapace, and these cords were woven in a variety of colors.  The color identified the wearer and made him conspicuous to his followers and fellow warriors during a chaotic melee. The theory is that when firearms arrived, with the noise and smoke of the arquebusiers, easily-recognizable armor became even more important to avert friendly fire.

Folding screen, Battle of the Uji River, detail.

Much artwork was inspired by the martial past, including the folding screen above and below, created in the 18th century, and depicting warriors on horseback crossing a river during the Genpei war of 1180-1185.  At this time bows were the dominant weaponry, and archers stood up in their platform stirrups to aim and loose their arrows.

Folding screen, detail.

Highlight of the show, designed by Keith Crippen and his team, were full scale equestrian figures, in full gallop, displaying not only the samurai armor, but the equally elaborate and ornamented horse armor. Again, most of this armor was made after 1615, the beginning of the Edo period, so was used for pomp and pageantry during festivals and processions.  Dress to impress, indeed!

Mounted samurai.
Left: chest protection, detail. Right: stirrup, detail.

The surface design on all of the metalwork is exquisite.  The show specifically showcases the fantastic helmets, made in a seemingly infinite number of variations on the basic bowl-shaped theme.  The lacquered iron helmet below was made by Unkai Mitsahisa, about 1630. The cut-out in front features a stylized heart of Marishiten, goddess of archers. 

Helmet with flames and heart ornament.

Ridged helmet with large rivets, c. 1730.

The helmet above is made of iron, gold, silver, bronze, leather and shakudo, an beautiful bluish alloy of gold and copper. The panels depict dragonflies on rice plants.  The metal craftsman who made this helmet based the design on historical styles from the Kamakura era, 1185-1333.

The exhibit, co-curated by Nina Barbier-Mueller Tollett, daughter of the collectors, and Jessica Liu Beasley, did not address in any depth the appropriation of samurai culture by the West, but the cultural transfer is hard to miss, at least in Hollywood products, where a sort of mash-up of samurai and ninja imagery results in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and iconic villain garb.


In the image above, the top picture is, of course, Darth Vader's helmet, unmistakably inspired by helmets such as the one in the bottom of the image, the oldest item in the exhibit, a large-riveted helmet from the Kamakura period, 1185-1333.
Left: warrior dolls. Right: boy's armor.

Samurai items came at every scale. In the image above, a set of boy's armor sits on its storage box, a rare survivor. To the left are figurines which would have been displayed as part of Boys' Day celebrations.

Armor with feather sashimono.

The suit of armor above was made around 1600, using iron, lacquer, bear fur, horsehair, bamboo and washi paper. The three tall feather ornaments, painted to resemble hawk feathers, attach to a bracket on the wearer's back; banners or other insignias worn on the back are called sashimono.  According to the exhibit label, this was probably not worn in battle, but it would have made a striking, inspiring standard, like one of Napoleon's golden eagles.