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Beauty in Battle: The Refined Artistry of Samurai Armor

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"Ridged Helmet with Large Rivets," Japan, mid-Edo period, c.1730; iron, gold, silver, bronze, shakudo and leather; Photograph by Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas
"Ridged Helmet with Large Rivets," Japan, mid-Edo period, c.1730; iron, gold, silver, bronze, shakudo and leather; Photograph by Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

The word "samurai" has its origins in an old verb meaning "to serve." The first samurai were soldiers who served in private armies hired to defend provincial landowners from the late 8th century onwards. By the late 12th century, the strongest of these provincial lords established a military government ruled by a shogun in the name of the emperor, and for the next 700 years, Japan was effectively ruled by shogun and provincial lords, or daimyo, who served them.

Although Japan's samurai class was officially dissolved 150 years ago, the image of the island nation's fierce and honorable warriors wearing elaborate battle gear and wielding terrifying blades has by no means faded. Instead, thanks to the films of the legendary director Akira Kurosawa and the manga and anime now consumed voraciously worldwide, the image has become more vivid and complex, and the samurai warrior has become a global icon of military might and loyalty.

The exhibition "Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection," showing at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) from October 19, 2014 to March 1, 2015, dramatically spotlights these warriors and their battle gear, reinforcing their image as some of the world's most strictly trained and well armed soldiers. Curated by Robert T. Singer, Head of the Japanese Art Department, and designed by Culver City-based architect Kulapat Yantrasast, the exhibition installation opens with a dynamic arrangement of three warriors on horseback charging towards visitors, all backed by a soft red light evoking the glow of burning buildings or the blood of the defeated. There is definitely a touch of Hollywood in the presentation. Beyond the lights and drama, however, are important revelations about these warriors and their culture. The breadth of techniques and styles employed to craft their suits of armor, masks, helmets and even horse armor and the intricate artistry represented in the metal, leather, wood and cloth artifacts together evidence a lesser known aspect of the samurai -- a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility which they carried with them into battle.

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"Armor of the Yokohagido Type," Japan, Nanbokucho period, 14th century (helmet); mid-Edo period, 18th century (suit); iron, shakudao, gold and silver lacquer, lacing bronze, wool, silk brocade and bear fur; Photograph Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas

During the 700 years of military rule in Japan, the samurai philosophy of loyalty, discipline, austerity and an appreciation of the fleeting nature of life came to infuse many areas of Japanese culture. At the same time, their material world was heavily influenced by native and imported artistic forces. Japan's military elite were trained not only in martial skills but also in literature and the arts, and under their patronage, art forms including the tea ceremony, Noh theater and ink painting developed and flourished. The residences of high-ranking samurai were adorned with paintings of majestic hawks, lions and tigers, they collected and displayed valuable ceramics, lacquer and metalwork, and they wore the finest silk robes, as can be seen in an accompanying exhibition of screen and scroll paintings and textiles in the Japanese Pavilion. When not engaging in warfare, the world of the samurai was often full of beauty, and when they did engage in battle, they took some of that beauty with them.

"Armor with the Features of a Tengu," Japan, Late Edo period, 1854; iron, lacquer vegetable fiber, bear fur, leather, feathers and fabric; Photograph Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas
"Armor with the Features of a Tengu," Japan, Late Edo period, 1854; iron, lacquer vegetable fiber, bear fur, leather, feathers and fabric; Photograph Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas

The extraordinary array of suits of armor in this exhibition makes it apparent that a samurai's battle gear was not merely protective in function. Much of the samurai's body was covered by hundreds of iron scales held together with leather and silk laces to imitate snake or dragon skin. Typically, the scales were colored in restrained dark blues and browns, but lords with more resources and a sense of drama often favored vibrant blood red or even a gold lacquer finish. The iron chest plates, helmets and masks had the strength to withstand swords, arrows and even the bullets from imported European muskets. It could also be cast into ornate and often fantastic forms like ferocious demons or protective deities and its earthy tone provided a neutral ground for writhing dragons and other designs inlaid in gold.

"Full-Face Mask," Japan, Edo period, 1710, iron; Photograph by Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas
"Full-Face Mask," Japan, Edo period, 1710, iron; Photograph by Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas

Because the heads of slain enemies were often taken in battle, the helmets and masks are arguably the most important part of the samurai's battle gear, and it is here that we find some of the most spectacular works of mixed-media sculpture. Iron masks cast in the shape of demons or pointed-nosed tengu mountain spirits, were embellished with fur to form bushy eyebrows and moustaches and lacquered to give the skin color. Helmets, typically constructed in several sections, were decorated with antlers, animal fur, feathers, bamboo, papier mache, lacquer and gold to evoke the power of mythical beasts, lucky gods or Fudo Myo-o, the patron Buddhist deity of the samurai. The whole ensemble undoubtedly intimidated enemies and impressed allies. Even in the Edo period (1600-1868), when the country enjoyed a long period of peace and samurai were rarely called to battle, daimyo and other high ranking samurai commissioned these spectacular suits and helmets, often displaying them in their reception rooms once a year as objects of art that also reminded guests of the owner's power.

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"Ridged Helmet and Half Mask," Japan, Late Muromachi period (helmet) to Momoyama period, late 16th century (mask); iron, copper, shakudo, gold, lacing, wood, leather and horsehair; Photograph by Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas

Just as the samurai themselves appreciated these suits of armor, helmets, masks and weapons as fine works of art worthy of display, so too do modern museums and private collectors today. Gabriel and Ann Barbier-Mueller, the owners of this collection of samurai armor admire both their sculptural quality and the imagination used to create them so much that they have amassed several hundred objects and are building a museum for the collection in Dallas. Here in Southern California, perhaps due to the influence of the movie industry but also likely because of our proximity to Japan and the many Japanese Americans in our community, there is similar fascination with the samurai figure and the related arts.

In LACMA's accompanying exhibition in the Japanese Pavilion, "Art of the Samurai: Swords, Paintings, Prints and Textiles," are breathtaking examples of old sword blades or koto collected by several local private collectors. Some date to the 13th and 14th centuries and were created out of tempered steel by master sword smiths Rai Kunimitsu and Sadamune, one of Japan's greatest masters of the blade. Also on view are matchlock guns and a terrifying spiky pole weapon called a sodegarami, or sleeve entangler. Though LACMA's own collection doesn't boast great swords, it does have significant holdings of samurai-related material, some of which are also on view. According to Christine Drosse, Curatorial Assistant of Japanese Art, who helped install the Japanese Pavilion exhibition, "the works of art on display in LACMA's samurai exhibitions are a marvelous testimony to the creativity, skill, and dedication of the Japanese craftsman whose work goes well beyond that of function and routine."

"Flame Helmet Representing the Flaming Jewel," Japan, early Edo period, c.1630; iron, lacquer, lacing, gold and bronze; Photograph by Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas
"Flame Helmet Representing the Flaming Jewel," Japan, early Edo period, c.1630; iron, lacquer, lacing, gold and bronze; Photograph by Brad Flowers; Copyright The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas

Alongside the swords and other weapons, a selection of dramatic prints and drawings by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, a 19th century master of graphic (in both senses) imagery, show the darker, bloodier side of the samurai, while folding screens depicting battles, Zen Buddhist paintings, exquisitely decorated kimono and calligraphy done by a samurai lord, help give us a sense of the beauty with which they surrounded themselves during times of peace. If the samurai movies of Kurosawa and Hollywood can paint the world of the samurai in bold, sweeping strokes for us, it is museum exhibitions like those at LACMA, which fill in the fine details of their artistic, philosophical and cultural lives to complete the complex picture.

The exhibitions "Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection and Art of the Samurai: Swords, Paintings, Prints and Textiles" are both showing at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) from October 19, 2014 to March 1, 2015. For more information, see www.LACMA.org.

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