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I went down to LA recently, to LACMA, to see this Samurai show which I had heard was all the thing. And it certainly was. Like many people, my interest in Japan started with a middle-school and high-school boyish enthusiasm for cool awesome samurai battles, and so forth; my interests later shifted, away from such things, towards popular arts and theatre, and the vibrant cultural life otherwise of a realm at peace, once the samurai wars ended. But, boy was this a great exhibit. It certainly served those intrigued or obsessed with the samurai – one kid, maybe about 7 or 8, who I saw several times over the course of the day, running around taking pictures with his iPad, was just so excited… I’m glad to see him having such fun, and taking such an interest. And, I’m glad to see a non-Western and non-modern show featured in the main central Special Exhibits hall. Not that that’s so unusual for LACMA, a museum with an entire pavilion dedicated to Japanese art, and most likely the largest Korean galleries in the country.

The label descriptions – which I presume came with the exhibit and were not by LACMA curators – really brought out the appreciation for the craftsmanship, design, and aesthetic quality that Mr and Mrs Barbier-Mueller clearly see, and thus helped me too see and appreciate these objects not just as cool awesome artifacts of a romanticized warrior class, but as art objects.

One thing that did bug me, however, was that the exhibit reifies, reinforces, rather than challenging, the myth of Bushido. It doesn’t come up too often, thank god, but here and there you see labels talking about the noble, honorable, spiritual moral code of the samurai. Bushidô as we know it comes mainly from two periods: (1) the Edo period (1600-1868), when books like Hagakure and the Book of Five Rings, and plays like Chushingura (47 Ronin), were written, long after the fighting ended, and at a time when samurai are struggling with their identity as “warriors,” and trying to reclaim something, and (2) the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Nitobe Inazo wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan in an attempt to describe something in Japan equivalent to Europe’s chivalry, in order to support arguments and ideas that Japan had just as noble a tradition, and a history, as Europe. Very much a product of his time, Nitobe was not a historian, nor really an expert in samurai philosophy, but rather an expert on race and colonial studies (as such things were understood by, e.g. the British and French at that time as well), eager to find a way to put Japan on equal footing among the great powers of the world, such that the Western powers would not see Japan as lesser or inferior. The word “bushido” was so little known in Japan in 1901 that Nitobe is said to have believed he was inventing (coining) it.

A helmet by Masuda Myôchin, c. 1730, bearing the seal of the Matsudaira clan.

Looking at the show, and thinking about these issues, inspired me to think of how I might like to do a samurai show in future, if I were ever to get to curate one:

*Contrast the samurai arms & armor with paintings and other works that emphasize Japan’s peaceful and highly cultured artistic heritage. In any samurai show, there will always be those visitors who take it as supporting their understanding that Japan is somehow inherently, has always been and always will be, a militarist country. I suppose one response to such ignorance would be to just ignore it, but another possibility is to educate. Japan is now, and has always been, a country with deep aesthetic appreciation (at least among elites, prior to the Edo period), and since the 1600s, a very lively urban commoner culture, including beautiful paintings, pottery, architecture, poetry, and so on and so forth. And, let’s not forget that Japan was (with the exception of peasant rebellions here and there) at peace for over 200 years in the 1640s-1850s. How many countries can claim that?

*On a somewhat similar note, I would love to do a show that emphasizes the samurai in the Edo period – display and pageantry. Catering to the popular desire for cool, awesome, samurai warriors, most samurai shows focus on the samurai during the Sengoku Period, the age of the country at war, and then sort of say, well, most of the arms & armor we have today in our collections and on display is not from that period, but it would have been largely kind of sort of similar. Instead of showing Edo period objects and identifying them as simply being a later version of what things would have looked like during the height of samurai warfare, I’d rather do a show that is wholly situated within the Edo period. This is how samurai of the Edo period lived, this is the role of parade armor in politics of display and pageantry. The exhibit would talk about how the samurai identity changed in the Edo period, and how a warrior class that was now a bureaucracy, now struggled to define or redefine, to understand, their identity as “samurai.” We could describe it not as a “decline,” but simply as the next stage, and if anything, it’s a “rise,” as the samurai develop more fully into cultured and cultural elites.

Triptych, Snow, Moon, and Flower, by Tokugawa Nariaki, Lord of Mito, c. 1840-1860. LACMA Collection.

Returning to talking about the LACMA exhibit, the Barbier-Mueller Collection includes many beautiful pieces, and I was pleasantly surprised with how many are identifiably associated with rather major families. The structure and display of this special exhibit was impressive, really impactful. But, for me, I quite enjoyed the sort of complementary exhibit they were hosting on the other end of the museum complex, in the Japan Pavilion. Since the Barbier-Mueller Collection, or at least those objects loaned to LACMA, includes mostly armor, and very few weapons, LACMA supplemented the exhibit with a great show of samurai paintings, prints, pottery, and yes, weapons. This show included many pieces borrowed from Tetsugendo.com, and the Museum of Global Antiquities (which, interestingly, I cannot seem to find, or find out about, at all from basic Google searches); between those and LACMA’s own collection, I was kind of amazed to see sword accessories crafted by Miyamoto Musashi himself, and blades by Muramasa and some of the other most famous swordsmiths in Japanese history, as well as examples of weapons like Japanese matchlock guns that we just don’t see very much of. A triptych of calligraphy scrolls by Tokugawa Nariaki – one of the most prominent and influential figures in Japan’s supposed “opening” to the West in the 1850s, and a member of one of the top samurai families in the country, was a highlight as well. One cannot help but wonder why such a thing is not in the Tokugawa Art Museum, local Mito area museum or archives, or the like, and how it came to be owned by LACMA.

Anyway, I suppose this review has sort of petered out. But, if you’re in the area and you’re into samurai armor and such, do check out Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection at LACMA, before it closes on Feb 1st!

All photos are my own. Thanks so much to LACMA and the Barbier-Mueller Collection for allowing photography in the exhibit!

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