Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
April 13- August 4, 2013
Ann and Graham Gund Gallery
Forget Ironman. The sight of a Samurai warrior would scare the bejaysus out of a peasant in feudal Japan. And if they happened to come along on horseback, peasants’ heart palpitations would be detectable with a seismograph.
By the 1700s the Samurai were more of an elite social class rather than warriors, their clout more political than lethal. The population may have been under their thumbs but nevertheless revered them as part of Japanese glorious history dating back to the 12th century.
The exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is stunning – a collection of over 100 artifacts spread imaginatively throughout the rooms of the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery.
The exhibit has hit a nerve with Bostonians that a Renoir or Monet exhibit will never touch. Last Saturday, the gallery was packed with as diverse a crowd as I’ve ever seen at the MFA. I mean a veritable pageant of Asian, white, black, Hispanic visitors, ranging from whole families, to seniors and teenagers. You might see such diversity when a circus comes to town but in MFA? I don’t think so.
Actually, I had as much fun watching the visitors as taking in the handsomely displayed lacquered metal helmets, suits of intricately fabricated armor, weapons, horse armor (including stirrups, saddles, and metal masks and frontispieces to protect horses’ chests) used in warfare or later for ceremonial occasions.
We know that the improbably impenetrable cinema armor of Ironman and a host of action heroes and villains is fantasy. Back in the day, there was nothing fictional about a Samurai warrior. He meant business. And when he was done serving his feudal boss, there would be blood (or townspeople) running in the streets.
My guess is this is why the exhibit is so popular. The Samurai warriors were real, they lived and died for their masters. Their armor preceded that of King Arthur and the fictional Knights of the Round Table. And their armor was breathtakingly beautiful, even if its wearers could be death machines to civilians or other opposing warriors. The paradox of the beauty and supreme craftsmanship of the armor and accouterments and the brutality its wearers could inflict is extraordinarily powerful.
The last room of the exhibit, with one platform of several Samurai warriors advancing and another platform of Samurai warriors approaching them on horseback will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Even after centuries of absence from Japanese society, the sight is totally intimidating.
The exhibit is informative without being overwhelming.
Even the horse armor looks scary.
Of course there's plenty of merchandise to tempt you as you leave the gallery.
Photos by Paul A, Tamburello, Jr.