By Michael Webb
Does everyone realize what a treasure LACMA is, and how far it has come in its 50 years as a stand-alone art museum? An encyclopedic, constantly growing collection is augmented by loan exhibitions, such as Haunted Screens, and two complementary shows on the military arts of pre-modern Japan. Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection has been seen in other museums, but one doubts it exerted the power it has here in an inspired installation by wHY Architecture in the Resnick Pavilion. From November 1st it will be complemented by Art of the Samurai: Swords, Paintings, Prints and Textiles, an exhibition of LACMA holdings and loans from local collectors.
We’ve all seen period Western armor—weighty steel carapaces that imprisoned knights in an upright posture and required they be hoisted by pulleys into their saddles. In Japan, armor was lightweight and flexible: a costume in which the Shogun, Daimyo and the samurai who owed them allegiance could strut around and sit in state on the trunks in which their armor was transported. Through the 250 years of the Edo era, there were no domestic battles or foreign wars, so armor became a finely crafted badge of status, as it did in Renaissance Europe. Every detail has significance, from helmets that conveyed menace or embodied a good-luck charm (including rabbits and an eggplant) to the richly embroidered under garments. A samurai was a living work of art, lording it over the merchants and other common folk.
To appreciate the potency of these exotic trappings takes a leap of imagination, and wHY have supplied that with blood-red lighting and vitrines that bring fearsome details into sharp focus. Movie stills of Japanese warriors screen the entry; turn a corner and you confront three samurai galloping towards you. The mounts were fabricated in Texas, where the horse is a noble beast; real samurai preferred sturdy Mongolian ponies that could negotiate mountainous terrain. The Shogun was smart enough to outlaw guns, so the samurai relied on his sword, and no crafted object is more beautiful (or keener) than a tempered blade. That’s a highlight of the second. home-grown exhibition curated by Robert Singer, LACMA’s erudite Curator of Japanese Art in collaboration with specialists. LACMA are adding to their collection of Japanese arts at a brisk pace, so we can anticipate many more exhibitions of comparable excellence.