And now for something completely different.
For its first temporary exhibit in the new Piano Pavilion, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum has brought in more than 140 pieces of Japanese armor from the 12th through the 19th centuries. The fearsome masks, elaborate helmets and full-body armor belonged to the famed Japanese mercenary soldiers, the samurai.
The armor was more than just a protective covering, it was also a symbol of power and a display of the county’s finest artistry. More than 18 full suits of armor and dozens of helmets, masks, swords and equine armor are on display in “Samurai: Armor From the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection.” Amassed by the Barbier-Mueller family of Dallas and representing one of the finest concentrations of samurai armor in private hands in the world, the exhibit opens today in Fort Worth and has previously traveled to Paris, Quebec, Boston and Portland, Ore.
The masks were made to be frightening, the helmets to evoke organic shapes imbued with power, the body suits to provide protection and displays of wealth. None of that, however, registers on first impression. When you first enter the gallery and encounter the full set of armor, your reaction is likely to be one of awe. These things are exquisitely beautiful — sculptural, intricately designed and artistically embellished. In a word: fascinating. A slow revolution around the case reveals the multiple layers of construction and the hands of many specialists. Leather workers, iron mongers, painters, textile and metal crafters — all contributed to the creation of these pieces of warfare. The artisans who created the samurai’s armor were venerated, held in the same esteem as painters, and many of the individual pieces are signed by their creators.
Most of the artifacts in the exhibit come from the Edo period, 1615-1868, a time of relative peace in Japan, when the samurai were more bureaucrats than soldiers, but there are pieces from earlier, more turbulent times that show battle scars. Among them is a metal chest plate with three bullet dings.
The samurai were the predominant military force in Japan beginning in 792 when the country ended its tradition of military conscription and regional landowners were compelled to hire their own police forces. This gave rise to the samurai class, which had its own code of ethical behavior and martial traditions. By 1185, warlords were the elite. There was an emperor, but the warlords, called shogun, were the power behind the throne. The shogun commanded the most powerful families, and under the shogun were daimyo, of whom, at various times, 50 to 250 were also heads of families and served by samurai. Both the daimyo and samurai owed their allegiance to the shogun.
Most of the armor in the Barbier-Mueller Collection is from the daimyo and samurai classes of the Edo period. Even though the samurai of this time were no longer called upon to fight, they maintained their armor as a sign of power and wealth. It was donned every two years when duty forced them to call on the emperor, and also during the new year celebration, on the 11th day of the first month, when it was put on display in their homes.
Over time, parts of the armor have been refurbished — for instance, many of the cotton lacings have been replaced — but the lacquered leather chest panels, helmets and masks are original constructions. Full suits of body armor in this striking show are displayed as if sitting on boxes. These boxes were the original storage chests for the armor. The armor’s chest, arm and thigh coverings were made in horizontal strips that were laced together, a construction that allowed them to fold like accordions so that the boxes could hold all the body armor as well as the elaborate helmets, masks, shin guards and gloves.
These articles of art and warfare were treasured family heirlooms. One collection of armor with several overcoats, weapons and equine accessories was passed down through multiple generations of the powerful Mori family for more than 900 years. Included is a red fireman’s cloak (since there was little call for fighting, the samurai also performed firefighting functions), a parade saddle covered in crushed mother of pearl, stirrups, swords, hats and articles of under-armor.
Also on display are arrowheads that look like hat pins, swords of many lengths and quivers full of long arrows with excessive feathering, plus bows, guns, battle gear for the horses and a stunning array of helmets. The head gear became increasingly elaborate the further the warriors were from the battleground, and these objects, in the shapes of natural forces such as waves, or fearsome animals or axes, are the most compelling elements in the exhibition. They bear family crests, horns and deities — anything that would evoke power and protect the wearer. Each helmet has a hole on the top through which the samurai pulled his own hair and that also allowed for ventilation.
A powerful aura surrounds these suits of armor, as if the ghosts of the samurai haven’t completely relinquished their ownership. The beauty of the workmanship makes them a natural fit for a museum setting, and it is only the inclusion of the weaponry that reminds us that these are articles of war.
This exhibit should appeal to modern-day warriors and anyone who desires to be confronted with something different. The appeal will be strong for crafters and artisans as well, because the beauty is in the details. The armor of the samurai is a very refreshing change from the framed.