Experience the art of the samurai at Currier exhibit
An early nineteenth century face mask peers out at visitors to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester's exhibit "Lethal Beauty." The exhibit features samurai art, weapons and armor and will be shown from now until May 5.
Photographed on Wednesday, February 13, 2013.
ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
An eighteenth century suit of armor seems to peer out at visitors to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester; Wednesday, February 13, 2013. The museum's exhibit "Lethal Beauty" features samurai art, weapons and armor that will be shown until May 5.
ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff
An iron sword guard with pierced dragon made by the The Echizen Kinai School of the late 1600s is one of several sword guards on display at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester's exhibit "Lethal Beauty." The exhibit features samurai art, weapons and armor and will be shown until May 5.
A detail of a screen painted with scenes
from the Tales of Heike, c. 1650-1700.
Courtesy of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture. to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester's exhibit "Lethal Beauty." The exhibit features samurai art, weapons and armor and will be shown from now until May 5.
In 1876, Otto von Bismarck was chancellor of Germany, Queen Victoria became Empress of India, and the Electoral College trumped the popular vote, naming Rutherford B. Hayes president of the United States.
But on the other side of the world, Japan, which had remained almost medieval, was undergoing even more dramatic change. After introducing railroads, calendar and currency reform, and Western dress, Emperor Meiji overturned seven centuries of tradition, disbanding the samurai and ordering this aristocratic warrior class to give up carrying swords in public. Since the 12th century, the samurai had served their feudal lords through legendary battles and, later, as elite members of society through two centuries of peace.
Though by 1876 the samurai were officially gone, they are remembered even today. From director Akiro Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to Hollywood’s Magnificent Seven and Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars; from anime, comic books, cartoons and video games about Genji and Jedi to surging enrollment in martial arts classes, the cult of the samurai remains alive and well.
That’s why the folks at the Currier Museum of Art are plenty excited about their current exhibit, “Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor.”
“This has broad appeal,” said Kurt Sundstrom, an associate curator at the Currier. “Even kids love the samurai thing.”
As evidence, Sundstrom points to a dozen home-schooled kids who showed up the day the exhibit opened. He includes his own 10-year-old son, a Power Ranger for Halloween, and a big fan of the art featured in his dad’s latest project.
What is remarkable about “Lethal Beauty” is the high level of art that imbues each of the 63 works on display. These range from an extraordinary pair of six-paneled, 12-foot screens depicting two major 12th-century battles to exquisite suits of armor, helmets, warrior hats, face masks, long and short swords, sword fittings, daggers and rifles.
This curious duality – deadly weaponry combined with artistic beauty – is best explained in a small room off the main exhibit area. Hanging screens depict the seven virtues of Boshido: courage, compassion, respect, honor, honesty, integrity and loyalty. This was the code of conduct by which the samurai lived during times of both war and peace. It is clear the same code was central to the artists and craftsmen who made these objects.
“Aesthetics informed every
thing they made,” Sundstrom said. “It is all a personal expression of their inner spirit and quest for perfection.”
The exhibit, on tour to a half-dozen museums in the United States, was organized by the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture in Hanford, Calif. William Clark, who calls himself a simple farmer as well as the largest distributor of frozen bull semen in the world, has been interested in Japanese culture since he first learned about that country in a one-room schoolhouse in eighth grade. His first trip to Japan was as a radar control officer. Now he and his wife, Libby, return at least twice a year.
Dr. Andreas Marks, who studied East Asian art history at the universities of Bonn and Leiden, curates their collection and arranged this exhibit.
In the exhibit catalogue, Marks says that, “Higher-standing samurai engaged not only in battles, but also followed artistic and spiritual pursuits. Based on their sense for aesthetics and beauty, suits of armor became exquisite designs. . . . Swords were decorated with elaborate mountings reflecting the accomplished taste of the owner, and the blades, created by highly refined craftsmen, were themselves unique artistic expressions.”
Historically, armor fell into three categories: one for archers on horseback, another for infantry, and a later type developed for combatants using swords and pole weapons. All consist of several parts, including shoulder guards, a skirt to protect the upper thighs, a helmet and a neck guard. Sleeves, thigh guards and shin protectors were added in the 17th century.
But far from being a uniform, each coat of armor was custom made, using metal, leather, lacquer and silk to create a sense of individuality for the wearer. Helmets and face masks were similarly eccentric, designed to inspire fear in their opponents and possibly hide the same apprehensions in their wearer.
Imagine, for example, being faced down by an iron-clad dude with a bushy fur mustache, gold teeth, a three-foot-high helmet topped with “heaven-piercing” gold-leafed antlers, and a cloud-shrouded dragon on his chest.
Then imagine, though in reality you wouldn’t have time to, this same dude wielding a long katana as it swiftly separates your head from your body. This sword, another object of superb workmanship and design, may have taken a year to make. Starting with sand rich with iron, the forger smelted, folded and pounded the raw material into shape, then handed it off to a master metal smith and finally a polisher before it was embellished further with elaborate mountings and scabbards made of various metals, mother of pearl, ray skin and lacquer.
The end of the tour features a room where adults and children alike can try their hand at creating sand gardens and origami. It also has a board on which some young visitors posted notes, expressing their reactions.
“Under promise and over perform,” one said.
Another budding samurai opined, “A little bit of pain gives a life full of glory.”
A third put it simply: “Respect one another.”
As oxymoronic as its title may seem, respect is what this exhibit is all about.
“Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor” continues at the Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, through May 5. The museum is open daily except Tuesday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturdays opening at 10 a.m. For information, visit currier.org or call 669-6144.