Samurai Arts

DREW LENIHAN, The Magazine, August 1, 2016

THE SAMURAI ARTS EXHIBITION AT ELLSWORTH GALLERY FEATURED pristine relics, regal weaponry, and garments worn by the samurai class are the main features of the Samurai arts exhibition at the Ellsworthy Gallery in addition to photography chronicling the end of one of the greatest eras in Japanese history. y. The show paid homage to a hermetic culture that had a great respect for the art of war, but also for the process of creating intricate, functional, and spiritually symbolic works. A darkened room to the left of the main gallery space felt more like an artifact room of the British Museum than a contemporary art space in Santa Fe. The weaponry and armor comes from collections in Japan, France, and New York, and are impressive in terms of their preservation. The works in silk, embossed leather, horn, copper, and iron glimmer, much like lights bouncing off the water of Tokyo—once called Edo—Harbor. The show weaves a narrative about a society of warriors and craftsmen who had a deep interest in symbolism and the beauty and necessity of functionality. Many of the artifacts reveal a deeper understanding of Japanese culture, including the influence of Shinto—the indigenous spirituality of Japan—and of Buddhism. The samurai integrated the beauty of their religion, culture, and landscape with the functionality of the armor used in war. The pieces are intricately adorned with gold leaf and elegant images of cherry blossoms, ocean scenes, and potent symbols of the samurai era in Japan. Several animals, including cranes, which suggest longevity, hawks—a testament to the traditional hawking and martial arts in Japan—and peacocks, which signify elegance and wealth, are the most prominent symbols in the exhibition. From the stance of art history, the most important pieces in the exhibition are the scrolls, as they can be attributed to actual Japanese artists. One of the smallest items is the tsuba, the swordguard at the beginning of the hilt of a takana. On close inspection, the guard depicts forest imagery and the characters of the clan of the samurai who owned it. Adjacent to the tsuba is the tessen—an armored fan made of iron and paper, which could be used to block an enemy’s sword advance. The fan is adorned with lotus petals and cherry blossoms, a unique intersection between its function in violence and its aesthetic beauty. The majority of these objects come from the Edo period, a time when an attempt was made to fully unite Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Leaders from local provinces were forced to move to the modern capital and port Tokyo, formerly Edo, as a means to create a subjugation of commoners and an extrapolation of material wealth. Due to this movement of the ruling class, the Edo period was a period of civil tension between warring regional tribes, known as daimos, which were comprised of combative clans and militia who often went into battle against each other while the ruling Shogunate class turned its head and looked the other way. This created an increase in battles where allied clans would turn on each other in the heat of combat, communicating through scrolls mounted on the back of their armor. The instability and the gravity of the violence of the era is seen best in the Tosei Gosuku, the full-battle armor that is fortified with iron, leather, and lacquer. On the back of the lacquered plate are two small iron hooks used to mount scrolls to communicate who was winning a battle, or when an alliance had disintegrated or emerged. Underlying motifs of the exhibition are suggestions of the looming breakthrough of the Western world into this isolated society. The jinbaori—a war surcoat worn by a general—is comprised of bone, silk, and, most importantly, imported European wool. This was the first time European goods had been used in Japanese attire. A more obvious indication of the invasion from the outside is seen in the photographs in the exhibition. Western photographers introduced the medium to Japan, and the studio recreations of actual samurai in battle give insight into the faces of the warrior class. When the Edo period ended, in the late nineteenth century, western photographers rushed to Japan to document a culture that would dissipate rapidly. A dynamic, hand-tinted print of a samurai archer offers an understanding of the collective respect for the performers of battle.