Artful Warriors @ The MET
“Art of the Samurai” represents a decade of work by Morihiro Ogawa, special consultant for Japanese arms and armor at the Met. All but about 10 of its 214 objects, including lacquer sword rests or luxurious surcoats worn over armor, are from Japanese museums, and nearly half are officially designated National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese. Many are exhibited only rarely in Japan, much less allowed to leave the country.
The show’s armor and helmets are among the world’s most lavish works of multimedia art, while the plain and simple sword blades, presented au naturel, offer subtleties of silhouette and tone that challenges the most ardent admirer of Minimalism.
A samurai’s armor was, after his swords, his most prized possession, handed down through generations and depicted in paintings. One of the show’s most exceptional ensembles is an all-black suit that belonged to the 16th-century commander Honda Tadakatsu. It is especially notable for the large, three-pronged deer-horn helmet and is flanked on one side by a 17th-century hanging scroll that shows Tadakatsu in full regalia, and on the other side by a smaller, second version of the armor, complete with the horns, which the family had made for a child, Honda Tadakata, seven generations later.
The blades are appreciated as art objects as much as weapons. The elegant proportions, curved lines and the subtle surface textures are breathtaking but the most interesting distinguishing characteristic is the “hamon,” or tempering line or pattern, an austere but purely decorative contrast in the tone of the metal extending along the blade. The blades are pictorial slivers, minimalist blends of painting and calligraphy in miniature that, as is usually the case with Japanese visual culture, are linked to nature. Their suggestiveness and variety astound, evoking irregular waves, mounds, mist, cloves, clouds, and horizon lines. It is quite a revelation to go through this show concentrating on the blades but you have to bring magnifying glasses with you to fully appreciate them.
When you turn from the arms back to the armor, you are jolted to the realization that what you have been viewing as beautiful pictorial objects are in reality weapons designed to maim and kill with utmost precision.