Exhibition: Art of the Samurai

Art of the Samurai:  Japanese Art and Armor, 1156-1868, opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday has been described as the most significant exhibition of Samurai objects in the world. It includes Samurai swords, armor, elaborate saddles, textiles and a range of other related items drawn from both museum and private collections across Japan.  The opening of this exhibition represents the culmination of 10 years of work by the exhibition’s primary curator.

Art of the Samurai can be viewed in two ways.  First, in the context of a historic cultural tradition of Japan, to reveal the meaning of Samurai, and to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the objects.  On the other hand, as a whole, the exhibition might also be viewed in terms of the influence that the stories and objects of the Samurai have had upon American culture, to consider whether these ideas are consistent with the original perspective, and to consider what this adoption may signify to Americans.

That said, for many visitors, the focus will likely be upon the armor, and especially, the variety of headpieces.  Upon viewing some of the elaborate kabuto, or helmets, in the exhibition, it is not difficult to see how these objects have influenced American media and pop culture, from the well-known inspiration for the Darth Vader character, to the recent proliferation of Samurai theme cartoon programs.  (Not to mention the media imported from Japan itself). The most elaborate of the kabuto are fascinating for their meticulous crafting, and aesthetic expression, as well as their underlying concept.  In form they range from the huge crescent shaped horns of a black lacquer “vader” style helmet, to those adorned with enormous metal insects.  Considering a clamshell-eared helmet one viewer surmised that it was “the original batman.”  Maybe.  In any case, for many American viewers, the kabuto are likely to be the stars of the show.

Not to be overlooked, however, are the blades.  Most are displayed as a pure aesthetic form, floating on plexi-glass supports and unattached to any mountings.  To the untutored, as a group they seem at first to be somewhat indistinguishable, austere objects.  However, their distinct characteristics and the fine aspects of the sword maker’s art can be appreciated with a little effort. By following the storyline of the exhibition layout, an evolution of form is revealed–details such as the variations of a curve and subtle wave patterns on the edge of a blade become points of interest.  Each blade reveals a distinct personality.

Aside from the kabuto and blades, the central galleries contain several full suits of Samurai armor.  The detailed construction of the pieces are quite interesting, and I encourage visitors to look at the back as well as the front.  There on the reverse side one can examine the elaborate knots and fastenings that held the armor onto the body, as well as the delicate metal hardware elements.

Most of the objects in the exhibition are denoted as significant cultural properties or national treasures and have never been seen together as a group, even in Japan.  As such, the opportunity to see this art of the Samurai should not be missed.  Also, note that some of the more fragile pieces will be rotated out and replaced with alternate objects in early December.

Art of the Samurai:  Japanese Art and Armor, 1156-1868

October 21 – January 10, 2010

Metropolitan Museum of Art

www.metmuseum.org

Update:  Since the exhibition rotation occurred, it appears that none of the objects pictured above remain at the Met.  Quite a few others have also been replaced with alternatives, including the crescent-horned kabuto mentioned above.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , ,


%d bloggers like this: