Thundering along the road beneath a towering castle, three horsemen in magnificent battle attire round a bend at a gallop. They rise like a dream, or a nightmare, or a band of Kurosawa heroes. On the gallery floor, visitors with cell phones look up and snap shot after shot.
Suddenly, it’s samurai season.
And, once again, design season.
And, oh, just by the way, war season.
Fresh on the heels of this summer’s blockbuster bicycle exhibition “Cyclepedia,” which followed 2011’s crowd-pleasing “Allure of the Automobile” exhibit of classic cars and 2009’s “China Design Now,” a sprawling show on the vast sweep of contemporary design in China, the Portland Art Museum has opened yet another large-scale exhibit that plays around in the intriguing territory where art, industrial design, and the decorative arts meet. And this time around, the industry is war.
“Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” takes in several centuries of beautifully designed artifacts used in the Japanese art of war, from helmets and swords to grotesque masks and elaborate horse armor. It begins with battle gear from as early as the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when feudalism and the samurai warrior class took root, and continues through pieces from the Late Edo period, which ended with the fall of Edo and the Meiji Restoration in 1858. That rupture, which ended the long rule of the shoguns and returned the country to imperial rule, marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s rigorous feudal isolationism and opened the nation to the modern outside world. It also, perhaps ironically, marked the ending of a long period of peace under the rule of a martial elite and the embarking on a period of military and cultural expansion that would engulf Japan in the tragedies of the Second World War.
“Samurai!” stretches out across much of the main floor of the museum’s main Belluschi building, where it’ll stay through January 12, 2014. It’s a traveling show from the Barbier-Muellers’ private museum in Dallas, Texas, and comes to Portland after stops in Paris, Quebec City, and Boston. It includes about 140 pieces (a good share of the Dallas museum’s 800-piece collection) and is fascinating not just for the gorgeous craftsmanship of the artifacts but also for its historical context, its insights into the attraction of collecting, and the way it highlights the nature of patronage.
The exhibition is very much about patronage, and not just the patronage of the Barbier-Muellers, who like so many good collectors are stewards of history. Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, a Swiss-born businessman who deals in property, is also a fourth-generation collector who, in a brief talk at the museum a day before the exhibit’s gala opening, quoted his grandfather’s words from shortly before he died: “Collecting is both a curse and a fantastic pleasure. … You can’t help yourself.”
As intriguing as the Barbier-Muellers’ story is, though – they’ve been collecting Japanese armor for a quarter-century, and opened their Dallas museum, which has free admission, just last year – it’s the original patrons, the ones who gave out the commissions to artists and craftsmen in the first place, who make this exhibit truly interesting. Put baldly, he who pays the piper calls the tune. And artists create what their patrons desire. In medieval and much of Renaissance Europe, the Church called the shots and the artists made religious art. The Medici were interested in power as an avenue to wealth, and wanted to be surrounded by the beauty that wealth could provide. When Henry VIII wanted to check out yet another prospective bride, he dispatched Hans Holbein the Younger to paint her portrait. The Dutch golden age was dominated by the merchant class, which bought images of upper middle class life. Modern patrons, the corporate power brokers of economic and technological creative destruction, give rise to our Pollocks and Hirsts and even, in a weird way, our Basquiats and Banksys. Art and power almost always go hand in hand. It’s no surprise, then, that the shogunate, which maintained power through ritual and military strength, funneled much of Japan’s creative capital into beautifully designed military apparatus. Artists served, in a literal sense, the art of war.
“Samurai!” opens with a bold and highly effective theatrical gesture. As you walk past the museum lobby and through the big glass doors to the Schnitzer Sculpture Court, you immediately encounter those three magnificent horsemen, in full battle gear, riding their exquisitely detailed mannequin steeds in front of a full-wall depiction of Hyogo Prefecture’s famous Himeji Castle, which was begun in 1346 and remodeled or expanded several times over the centuries. The scene is action-filled and dramatic, and it helps solve a puzzle that curators face when installing any exhibition that features costume or otherwise kinetic art: how to show the works as they were actually used, not just as they lie smoothed out for examination in specimen cases. Like Native American clothing and masks, samurai armor was meant to be worn and to travel through space, and it was designed to have its greatest effect as it moved with a living body inside it. Beginning the exhibition with this display of the armor in action gives visitors a vivid sense of how the armor was actually used, and they can take that image with them as they walk through the more static areas of the show, imagining how a horse’s mask, say, would look in full flight. And they looked both formidable and wonderful. The ornamentation of the horses is fantastic: elaborate saddles, woven neck and haunch blankets (even ones for their tails), helmets with horns and dragon snouts to inspire awe and fear. In a medieval culture, seeing these three warriors ride into your isolated village might well be the memory of a lifetime.
The Portland Art Museum has a large and well-regarded permanent collection of Asian art (“Samurai!” is accompanied by the complementary exhibit “Legendary Samurai,” a selection of 26 samurai-themed prints, mostly from the 1800s), but bought its first suit of Japanese armor only last year. “It came in 40 boxes,” Maribeth Graybill, the museum’s curator of Asian art, said with a wry laugh. “And we had no idea what to do.” So she and her staff turned to the catalogue for “Samurai”: “It helped me a great deal to understand our own piece.”
“Samurai!” includes 20 full suits of armor, 46 helmets ranging from the 14th through the 19th centuries, and many warrior masks (full-, half-, and chin-), plus stirrups, saddles, masks, blankets, and other gear for the horses. The samurais’ masks often were designed to help support the elaborate helmets, which could weigh as much as 11 pounds. It also features swords, arrowheads, quivers, bows and bow holder, a war drum, a battle banner, even a fire fighter’s cape. Uniting these specimens, besides their military purpose, is the skill and variety of their craftsmanship, which called on artisans working in leather, metal, calligraphy, the weaving arts, and other traditional crafts, often with many such skills combined on the same piece.
Unlike European armor, which was fashioned primarily from plates of metal and tended to be clumsy, the samurais’ armor was articulated and flexible and comparatively light, designed for movement as well as protection. That approach was common, Graybill said, from Persia eastward. It was built to resist swords and musket fire and, most of all, arrows. “The most deaths in battle were from arrows,” Graybill said. “The sword was the weapon of last resort.” Earlier armor, through about the 14th century, when warfare was a smaller event, generally weighed between 45 and 50 pounds, excluding the helmet. That compared to a bulkier 75-80 pounds for European armor. As battles became more massive, samurai armor slimmed down and simplified, favoring quick movement and efficiency over exaggerated ornamentation, although it never gave up the ideal of beauty. Instead of a breastplate it would feature slightly overlapping scales, laced together in parallel rows.
Perhaps the most consistently decorative items in the exhibition are the elaborate helmets, which were designed both to identify specific warriors on the battlefield and to inspire awe. The variety is dizzying. A helmet in the shape of Mount Fuji, with a half-mask. A cone, with mule-deer ears, and a pointed facemask like Arlecchino. An “extraordinary helmet,” as some of these are referred to, in the shape of a cresting wave. Rhinoceros horn-shaped. Ax-shaped. A gorgeous antlered helmet. Bamboo-shaped, talon-shaped, eggplant-shaped. A helmet “in the shape of a mountain ascetic’s headdress.” A helmet in the shape of a flaming jewel. Even a head-shaped helmet (imagine that!), replete with a thick bush of hair and elaborate top knot, or motodori, the whole thing fashioned from iron, bear fur, silk, lacquer, and gold. Helmets and masks, in particular, contained a grotesque beauty that surely had an effect on the creation of the modern Japanese dance form of butoh.
Dragon motifs pop up regularly, which at first blush seems surprising. Unlike European dragons, which were considered monstrous and dangerous, Asian dragons were thought of as symbols of good fortune. Why would a warrior want to present himself in an image of goodness rather than fear? “Power,” explained Bruce Guenther, the museum’s chief curator. Dragons were immensely powerful, and the samurai wanted to remind friends and enemies alike that they were powerful, too. Sometimes power doesn’t need to be benevolent or evil to be effective. It just needs to be. Indeed, under the strict and ordered (and sometimes harsh) rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, or Edo Period, the country was largely at peace from the early 17th century until Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853, allowing the samurai to become administrators and bureaucrats, which resulted in another subtle change in weaponry: it became largely for show, an elaborate trapping of power.
As surprising as it may seem in contemporary American culture, where the arts are thrown largely on their own devices to sink or swim, in traditional Japanese culture the arts were part of the whole, the expression of what it meant to be Japanese. It was a warrior culture, but a warrior culture that encouraged individual expression, within bounds. The samurai lived by, or at least aspired to, a code of behavior called bushido that was similar to Europe’s chivalric code, and evolved to include seven basic tenets: courage, rectitude, benevolence, respect, honor, honesty, and loyalty. This was a code that was often honored in the breaching: corruption was far from uncommon, brutality was not uncommon, and samurai held some extraordinary rights that were ripe with opportunity for abuse: they were allowed, for instance, to execute any commoner whom they believed did not give them proper respect.
Yet the samurai didn’t simply belong to an army. They belonged to a way of life. It included beauty in many forms, from the ritual of the tea ceremony to dance and painting and the martial arts. In the ideal, at least, which is what the exhibition “Samurai!” is showing us, it was a balanced world, efficient and inefficient at once – like the Arts & Crafts design movement of the late 19th century, meant to be useful and lovely.
Which is why, in the midst of battle, as those magnificent horses rode down on you in a splendor both glorious and awful to behold, you could die by the blade of a work of art.