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Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth hosts major exhibition of ancient Japanese armor
File photo of the Barbier-Mueller family at traveling exhibition in Paris (Left to right) Gabriel Barbier Mueller, Niña Barbier-Mueller Tollett, Alexis Barbier-Mueller, Ann Barbier-Mueller, and Oliver Barbier-Mueller Photograph © Cyril Zannettacci. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
FORT WORTH, TX.- Fearsome warriors clad head-to-toe in highly decorated armor, samurai of 12th- through 19th-century Japan symbolized the power, honor and valor of the country’s military elite. Led by omnipotent warlords, called shoguns, samurai have long fascinated the public. To provide insight into their military prowess and lifestyle, as well as the artistry of their elaborate armor, helmets and accoutrements of warfare, the Kimbell Art Museum hosts Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection.

The exhibition showcases more than 140 works from The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum: The Samurai Collection of Dallas, Texas, one of the finest private holdings of samurai armor in the world. Among the works featured are 18 full suits of armor, including one formerly owned by the Yoshiki branch of the Mōri clan, a prominent family whose origins date to the 12th century. Special highlights of the exhibition include three life-size horses clad in armor, illustrating the pageantry of samurai and their mounts in battle or procession, and an impressive array of beautifully detailed helmets and masks. It is the first traveling exhibition displayed in the Kimbell’s new Renzo Piano Pavilion.

“This stunning display of exquisitely ornate and wonderfully forbidding armor re-creates the world of the samurai and brings the viewer face-to-face with the legendary warriors,” commented Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “This is the first traveling exhibition to be showcased in the Museum’s new Renzo Piano–designed galleries, and it will be perfectly complemented by the Kimbell’s own renowned collection of Asian art in the pavilion’s west gallery, located adjacent to the special-exhibition space.

To fully appreciate the world of the samurai, the exhibition introduces visitors to their history and bushidō, the “way of the warrior.” This code of conduct incorporated martial and ethical traditions, including honesty, courage, honor and loyalty, as well as the warrior’s acceptance of death. The history of the samurai begins in 792, when Japan ended its policy of conscripting troops, which led provincial landowners to assemble their own forces for defense, giving rise to the samurai class. By 1185, warlords became the military elite, ruling in the name of the emperor. Leading them was a shogun, commander of the most powerful family or clan. Under him were daimyo, heads of other families, who were served by samurai warriors. Through the centuries, different clans vied for power. However, in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun and established a lasting peace that extended some 250 years (Edo period, 1615–1868). During the subsequent Meiji Restoration in 1868, the emperor reasserted his authority as supreme ruler and the samurai as an official elite class was dissolved.

"What is so intriguing about Samurai armor is that it represents a perfect blend of technical virtuosity, functionality and creative artistry," said Jennifer Casler Price, curator of Asian and non-Western art at the Kimbell. "This resulted in the production of some truly fascinating and imaginative works of art, particularly the kawari kabuto (transformed helmets), which are well represented in the Barbier-Mueller collection.”

Creating samurai armor was a highly specialized art form overseen by a lead armorer, who recruited a team of blacksmiths, soft-metal (gold and copper) craftsmen, leather workers, braid makers, dyers, painters and other artisans. The armor they produced protected the wearer and incorporated motifs reflecting samurai spirituality, folklore and nature. To protect the infantry and mounted samurai, armor became increasingly complex and varied, depending on its use and the status of the wearer. It also developed into an intricately designed work of art that served as a symbol of protection, ceremony, and prestige. The exhibition illustrates the evolution of the distinctive appearance and equipment of the samurai warrior through a detailed look at the component parts of the armor, showcasing a magnificent full suit with all of its accoutrements—several surcoats, equestrian equipment and weapons—passed down through generations for some 900 years by the powerful Mōri.

The spectacle of high-ranking samurai dressed in full regalia for battle, procession and ceremony comes to life in a display of three warriors on horseback. Of particular note is Armor of the Tatehagidō Type, shown with horse armor (bagai), a horse mask (bamen), and horse tack (bagu). Before the 17th century, samurai horses did not wear armor. Subsequently, the armoring of horses conveyed the prestige and power of their owners during ceremonies that paid tribute to high-ranking leaders or marked special occasions.

When not in use, samurai armor would be showcased for guests to see in the shoin, or special reception room of a daimyo’s home, on the 11th day of the first month of each year. In the exhibition, helmets and suits of armor are presented not only as symbols of power and authority, but also as beautiful works of art. Among the highlights are numerous exquisitely decorated helmets, such as Flame Helmet Representing the Flaming Jewel, which are created in fanciful shapes and adorned with embellishments, including horns, shells, bamboo and Buddhist iconography.

The exhibition concludes by showcasing three magnificent suits of armor that illustrate how these outfits become increasingly decorative during the 250 years of peace that marked the end of the samurai’s dominance. Included among them is the impressive Armor of the Okegawadō Type, a suit of armor featuring three six-foot-tall gilt feathers that acted as a private battle standard, which captures the high drama of the fully outfitted samurai warrior in all of his glory.

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