Sunday, June 17, 2018

The real samurai story at Ringling Museum of Art


Samurai have been glamorized for almost a century in books and, more recently, films — The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise is a good example — and we can understand why.

Their story is compelling and their accoutrements even more so. Their code of honor was inspiring. Their demise a cultural and historic loss.

The reality of the Japanese warrior class known as samurai is more complex than is often portrayed as we see in "Samurai: The Way of the Warrior" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The exhibition covers the early 17th through the mid-19th centuries when Japan evolved from an isolationist, feudal country to one that reluctantly opened its doors to the outside world, thus dooming the caste system that enabled the existence of the samurai. Still, the show acknowledges the caste's long history and gives us a good perspective of it. Though their code included an unswerving willingness to die for their lords, their instruments of war were made to keep them very much alive. Yet the objects are things of beauty, illustrating at the highest level the fine-craft tenet that beauty must coexist as an equal partner with utility.

The most striking gallery, the second one, contains nine suits of armor and they make the all-metal ones worn by Western soldiers look boring and cumbersome. Their distinctive appearance comes from their assemblage of steel or boiled leather plates assembled in rows, lacquered and woven together with silk. The silk and lacquer were essential elements adding to the armor's strength. Ringling curator Christopher Jones points out that the armor, and everything else in the show, was made during a relatively peaceful and stable time for Japan. Thus what we see, while traditional, was worn more for ceremony than battle, which explains some of the lavish embellishments.

I'm sure they would perform just great if need be, however; the swords convinced me. Only samurai had the privilege of wearing two swords, a short one (wakizashi) and a long one (katana). The lavishness of the handles and sheaths is dazzling — precious metals, horn, ebony and mother-of-pearl, for example — but the unadorned blade is the real point (yes, an obvious pun). Japanese metalsmiths developed a process using several kinds of steel that gave the blade both strength and flexibility, making it an awesome killing machine that wouldn't snap apart on impact. It could slice a man in half with one stroke. Look at the blades on view in this show and you'll see what looks like an area that needs polishing. It's the line between the harder and softer steels and was a defining feature of the samurai sword.

Helmets are equally glamorous and could be just as personalized as swords and armor. As Jones says, "They were an audacious display of identity." They begin with a straightforward base, or bowl of metal or boiled leather that was ramped up with add-ons. The attachments were usually fearsome: a gold-painted creature part fish, part dragon, a demonic one made of water buffalo horns, for example. Sometimes they had a bit of whimsy. One helmet is garnished with rabbit ears. The whimsy is probably ours; rabbits symbolized good luck. A practical reason for such eccentric originality was that the foot soldiers could easily identify their leaders on horseback.

Besides suiting up for special events in those centuries of peace, what was a samurai to do? He became cultivated. The gallery Jones calls "the samurai bling room" contains extravagant adaptations of their warrior accessories. The samurai were most famous for their swordsmanship, but they were also famed archers. The quiver holding arrows a samurai would have used in a fight was probably not the 17th century one on display that is covered in multicolored mother-of-pearl flakes, so fantastical they look like glitter. Sets of saddles and stirrups are lacquered in gold more suited to a parade than a bloodbath.

(An aside: Though their traditional weapons were prized, the Japanese had firearms beginning in the 14th century. They weren't used much until the 16th century when Portuguese traders imported Western models. Skilled craftsmen soon learned to make better versions locally. Interest in them ramped up considerably in the mid-19th century when there was resistance to Western, especially U.S., influence.)

Refinements extended to household items: a rare folding chair of practical wood and leather made sumptuous with gold, silver and silk brocade, and calligraphy and food boxes (probably for a picnic, Jones says) gorgeously crafted, inlaid and lacquered.

When Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his "black ships" into Edo Bay in 1853, the event signaled the beginning of the end for the samurai and the nobles they served. The emperor formally abolished the samurai class about two decades later in favor of a modern, conscripted army, but before that, their influence had waned. They lost both their status and their annual stipends. Most of them were well-educated and were able to transition into businessmen, but many were reduced to becoming mercenaries for hire, known as ronans, or wave men, who wandered and had no permanent place.

And that is how this wondrous collection ended up in Florence, Italy.

Frederick Stibbert (1839-1906) was a wealthy collector who lived in a Florentine villa. He had many areas of interest but the most compelling for him was armor. He gathered it from throughout the world. When the samurai fortunes shifted, they either needed the money or didn't need past reminders of a banned lifestyle so sold evidence of their past to Europeans. Stibbert was an excellent customer. When he died, he bequeathed his collection and villa to Florence and it became the Museo Stibbert, which lent this show to the Ringling. It isn't exactly a happy ending — a lost way of life is always painful — but it is an enriching one.

Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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