Art of the Samurai on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Through January 2010
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's ambitious major loan exhibition Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868 brings together 214 masterpieces, including 34 National Treasures, 64 Important Cultural Properties, and six Important Art objects, a number of which have never traveled outside Japan. Featuring the finest examples of armor, swords, sword fittings and mountings, archery and equestrian equipment, banners, surcoats, and related accessories of rank, as well as painted screens and scrolls depicting samurai warriors, the exhibition explores the greatest achievements of this unique facet of Japanese art. Masterpieces on view will include an exceptional 12th-century blade called kanehira that is known as the greatest of all Japanese swords, and a striking armor with helmetadorned by a crescent more than 30 inches longworn by Date Masamune, one of Japan's legendary warriors. Drawn exclusively from more than 60 public and private collections in Japan, this is the most comprehensive exhibition of Japanese arms and armor ever to take place in the world. Approximately 60 objects will be rotated into the exhibition during the first week of December.
Morihiro Ogawa, the exhibition's curator, and Special Consultant for Japanese Arms and Armor in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of Arms and Armor, stated: "Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868 has been more than 10 years in the making. Extended negotiations have resulted in an assemblage that would be difficult to experience even in Japan. The exhibition will include many works that are seen rarely and others that have never been shown beyond the Shinto shrines and a temple. We are particularly honored by the exceptional support offered by those responsible for the administration of cultural properties for lending us 34 National Treasures, more than triple the number ever before allowed to leave Japan for a single loan exhibition. I sincerely hope that this exhibition will bring to the public a new awareness of the samurai culture that is often misunderstood as a mere martial art."
Historical Background of Samurai
Between the 12th and 19th centuries, the military elite dominated Japanese politics, economics, and social policies. Known as bushi or samurai, these warriors, who first appear in historical records of the 10th century, rose to power initially through their martial prowessin particular, they were expert in archery, swordsmanship, and horseback riding. The demands of the battlefield inspired these men to value the virtues of bravery and loyalty and to be keenly aware of the fragility of life. Yet, mastery of the arts of war was by no means sufficient. To achieve and maintain their wealth and position, the samurai also needed political, financial, and cultural acumen. In contrast to the brutality of their profession, many leaders of the military government became highly cultivated individuals. Some were devoted patrons of Buddhism, especially of the Zen and Jodo schools; several were known as accomplished poets, and others as talented calligraphers.
Exhibition Overview and Highlights
Known as omote dogu, or 'exterior equipment,' military equipmentparticularly swords and armorwas prized above all else and used for splendid display as well as the dress in which they would die if defeated in battle. To that end, samurai spent untold sums, and went to almost any extreme, in pursuit of excellence and splendor in the making of these great works of art. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to witness for the first time the emergence and development of this 'exterior equipment' together with paintings and other related materials.
Gallery I: Archaeology and Heian Period (794-1185)
The exhibition is organized in chronological order, and the first gallery is devoted to works created before 1185, where one of the highlights is an extremely rare 12th-century armor with red-leather lacing, the only known example of this type (National Treasure). Due to its fragile condition, this object is permitted to be on display for only two weeks at a time (on view through November 1); it will be replaced in the exhibition by a magnificent 14th-century armor (National Treasure) beginning December 1.
Gallery II: Kamakura period (1185-1333)
The Japanese sword is often called the "spirit of the samurai," and this exhibition features the best examples of swords, dating from the fifth century to the 19th century. Among the many masterpieces showcased in the gallery devoted to the Kamakura period, which began with the establishment of Japan's first military government, is a 13th-century blade known as Dai Hannya Nagamitsu (National Treasure), a superb example of tachi (slung sword) that was valued at 600 kanequal to about 2,250 kilograms of silverin the Muromachi period (1392-1573). Of exceptional quality, this sword was in the possession of many renowned warriors, originally of the shogun clan. Later it came into the possession of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), one of the most powerful warlords of the feudal era, who in turn gave it to Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), the founder of the Edo period (1615-1868), in honor of his military success at the Battle of Anegawa (1570). Another masterpiece sword, known as Hocho Masamune (National Treasure) and attributed to Masamune, one of the most renowned of all Japanese swordsmiths, will also be on view, as will an extraordinary saddle of the 13th century known as a kagami kura (National Treasure), whose inner surfaces have circular pieces of mother-of-pearl inlay pierced with a snake's-eye design.
Gallery III: Nambokucho (1336-1392) and Muromachi Periods
Japan experienced almost incessant warfare from the beginning of the Kamakura to the end of Nambokuch period. Despite the social and political upheaval, the Muromachi period was economically and artistically innovative. Objects in this gallery include extremely rare outer garments: a jacket with matching trousers called Crimson hitatare and hakama with scattered paulownia (Important Cultural Property). Records kept by the Mri family indicate that these were given to Mri Motonari (1497-1571), another powerful warlord contemporary of Nobunaga, by an Ashikaga shogun. Fine silks and gold brocades were used for such garments because they were intended to be worn beneath armor by warriors facing death on the battlefield.
Gallery IV: Momoyama Period (1573-1615)
The Momoyama culture was rich and dynamic, fueled by a healthy economy and the energy of a people liberated from the violence of war. On view is an impressive 16th-century armor with a deerhorn helmet called D-maru gusoku (Important Cultural Property) that was originally owned by the famous warrior Honda Tadakatsu. It is exhibited with a life-like portrait of Tadakatsu, who is depicted wearing the armor (Important Cultural Property); the painting is said to be an accurate representation of Tadakatsu as a powerful, seasoned warrior, who is prepared to join the front line of battle. A set of splendid 16th-century saddle and stirrups (Important Cultural Property) owned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), one of the most famous samurai in history, exemplifies the superb maki-e style of the period. A richly decorated 16th-century surcoat (jimbaori), said to have been given by Oda Nobunaga to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is also on view, as well as portraits of Asai Nagamasa, a high-rank samurai whose tragic story has been handed down through the generations, and of Oichi no Kata, Wife of Asai Nagamasa, a legendary Japanese beauty.
Gallery V: Edo Period
During the Edo period (1615-1868), the cult of the warrior, bushido, became formalized and an idealized code of behavior developed, focusing on fidelity to one's lord and honor. The samurai of this period inherited the traditional aesthetics and practices of their predecessors and therefore continued the seemingly paradoxical cultivation of both bu and bunthe arts of war and culturethat characterized Japan's great warriors. A number of masterpieces from the period are on display in this gallery.
A section of this gallery features 15 unique helmets in two rotations (the second of which will begin December 8), including a peach-shaped helmet with butterfly crest, a helmet with a forecrest in the form of a mantis, a black-lacquered helmet with the arm of a guardian deity wielding a vajra, a helmet in the shape of a crab, and a helmet in the form of a five-storied pagoda. Also on view is an extremely rare 18th-century armor for a woman; it is an outstanding example of armor of the highest quality from the Edo period that incorporates superb metalworking, lacquering, and leather-making techniques. The martial skills and daily life of the samurai and their governing lords also will be evoked through painted screens depicting battles, military sports, castles, and famous samurai warriors. This gallery includes the 17th-century folding screen of The Battle of Nagashino and a 19th-century handscroll painting by Odagiri Shko, Daimyo Processing to Edo. A simple but elegant sword guard with a "sea cucumber" motif created by Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), one of the most admired of all samurai, is also be on view.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue edited by Morihiro Ogawa, with essays by Kazutoshi Harada, Special Research Chair of the Tokyo National Museum; and Hiroshi Ikeda, Chief Researcher of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Government, the world's leading experts on Japanese sword mountings and fittings, sword blades, and armor. By combining their paramount knowledge, connoisseurship, and decades of experience, the catalogue of the exhibition will present the most detailed and definitive treatment of this relatively inaccessible and esoteric subject ever published in English. Published by the Metropolitan Museum, Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156-1868 will be available in the Museum's bookshop (hardcover, $65, paperback, $45).
The catalogue is made possible by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc. Additional support is provided by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Allison S. Cowles, the Grancsay Fund, and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.
An ancillary gallery at the end of the exhibition will display a selection of nine pieces from the Museum's collection that were restored in Japan as part of a program sponsored by the Japanese government and devoted to the preservation of Japanese works of art owned by foreign museums.
The exhibition is featured on the Museum's website at www.metmuseum.org
Metropolitan Museum of Art
82nd St and 5th Ave