Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Met and the Sword

Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor, 1156–1868
October 21, 2009–January 10, 2010
The Tisch Galleries, 2nd floor

Last week, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the first ever comprehensive and documented exhibition devoted to the arts of Japan's medieval warriors, the Samurai. Many of the artifacts are so fragile they will be displayed only for a short time and others will be rotated in their place.

By all accounts, the show is stunning. Art critics see the exhibition as presentations of Japanese multi-media art: different materials and artisans creating meticulous war-fighting ensembles. The New York Times made it the front story of this weekend's Art's section. The reviewer, the well-known Roberta Smith, was struck, as is every student of Japan, by the "the defining opposition of centuries of Japanese aesthetics: utter, even hermetic simplicity versus off-the-charts ostentation."

She observes that, "The show’s armor and helmets are among the world’s most lavish works of multimedia art, and — in the opposite corner, as it were — its plain and simple sword blades, presented au naturel, offer subtleties of silhouette and tone that could challenge the most ardent admirer of Minimalism."

And she concludes that "it is a chance to grasp in irreducible visual terms the complex extremes of Japan’s traditional aesthetic values and, to some extent, its moral ones too." Well, maybe.

The viewer should not forget that the objects displayed are there because they were not used. Their owners did not die encased in their beauty. Instead the armor and swords were carefully preserved and protected, almost worshiped. They were not used to practice warfare and death.

This exhibition freezes Japan's warrior ethic in a stylized-medieval time. Like so many Japanese history classes, the presentation ends with Meiji. It ends when armor is no longer practical or a symbol of rank. It ends when only the sword matters.

Yes, the picture I posted above is unfair. It hangs nearly life-size in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It shows the last moments of POW Sergeant Leonard G. Siffleet who is about to be beheaded by Yasuno Chikao with his family's samurai sword. I remember that it was the samurai sword that first caught my eye when I found myself before the photo.

And now I cannot help but wonder if any of the swords displayed at the Met were once used in a similar manner.

The Met exhibition is mostly funded by the conservative newspaper group, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Japanese government. The Yomiuri has been busy the past few years re-examining Japan's war history in order to assign responsibility to a few in the wartime Cabinet. It was a misguided few who corrupted the beauty in Japan's warrior tradition.

On the afternoon of November 8th, The Met will hold an afternoon of lectures describing the art and museumology of the exhibition. Any student of Japan and of warfare should find it interesting.

The Met, for you Christmas shoppers, has taken full advantage of the elements of the exhibition's beauty and there are many potential gifts for sale. The exhibition catalog and the pins and pendants are especially nice.

Later: There are apparently a number of exhibitions in the U.S. this year featuring Japanese swords and armor. Those of you on the West Coast may want to visit the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, California, September 1-January 30, 2010.

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