In his late poem “Thermopylae,” the writer Raymond Carver tells of the Spartan soldiers who prepared to hold a mountain pass against the great Persian army of Xerxes. Before the battle these soldiers, who knew they were doomed, were spied by a Persian scout “sprawled as if uncaring,” “combing and combing their long hair.”
“When Xerxes demanded to know what such display signified,” wrote Carver (adapting Herodotus, the ancient source of the story), “he was told, When these men are about to leave their lives / they first make their heads beautiful.”
“Samurai!,” a splendid new show at the Museum of Fine Arts, has many objects that attest to the universality of this strange urge to make one’s head beautiful before facing death in battle. It is not just a show, that is to say, for violent little boys.
The show has armor and weapons aplenty, most of it very eye-catching. But to see the samurais’ headgear, in particular, is to be forced to recognize that, yes, waging war may be obscene, but it is an obscenity that is often closely aligned with intense beauty.
We might like to insist otherwise, but this beauty is not merely false — a promise of happiness that turns instantly to travesty. For it is a beauty that arrives wrapped up in some very powerful human ideals: total fidelity, utmost devotion, self-sacrifice, dignity, honor held so dear that it trumps life itself.
These ideals tend to float far above the bumbling, pacific comedy of everyday life. But they can be fired to a kind of hard perfection in the diabolical kiln of war. Those who perceive this, and who at the same time register life’s transience (another truth flushed out by war) may be especially susceptible to the aesthetic appeal of samurai armor.
“Samurai!” reminds us that no soldiers brought the trappings of war to such a pitch of aesthetic refinement as Japan’s elite warrior class. It comprises a collection of armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection in Dallas.
Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, a Swiss-born property developer who has been based in Dallas since 1979, took to collecting samurai armor in the late 1980s. He and his wife, Ann, recently established a small museum in Dallas to house their collection.
Simultaneously, they worked with Paris’s Musee du quai Branly and Quebec’s Musee de la Civilisation to organize this show, which the Museum of Fine Arts has subsequently taken on.
It’s a good thing they did: The armor has been soberly but dramatically installed (there is even a set of warriors perched atop three very lifelike fiberglass and steel horses!). It should convert all age groups to the daunting beauty of these pieces, many of which, it should be added, were made more for show than action. As Japan enjoyed a prolonged period of peace, the aesthetic, religious, and social functions of samurai armor took on greater importance. But make no mistake: War and its concentrated perceptions remained a forefront concern.
The helmets worn by samurai and handed down through generations — often accruing additional elements over time — can be treated as sculptures in their own right. The variety of styles is extraordinary. It is matched by the helmets’ symbolic richness and by the variety of component parts, colors, and textures.
Each piece is constructed out of a sensitively harmonized array of eclectic materials that usually includes iron, lacquer, and lacing, but may also include papier-mache, fur, hair, antlers, leather, copper, gilt bronze, and so on. The results reward close looking.
One exceptional example is an early Edo period (17th century) helmet representing a flaming jewel, a symbol of Buddhist doctrine. The iron helmet is adorned with flames, cut from a sheet of iron, that sweep up and slightly back (implying forward momentum). The inside is in gilded lacquer, a mark of distinction. At the front is a heart-shaped symbol made from gilded bronze — a symbol for the goddess of archers, Marishiten.
Most of the helmets, which are often complemented by visors, neck guards, and masks, are made from several iron plates pieced together. Some, however, like an early Edo “nanban kabuto” (or helmet influenced by European foreigners) are forged from a single piece.
Many of the features of samurai body armor are also laden with meaning and tradition. Seen together with helmets, masks, weapons, and other accouterments, these ensembles radiate a visual and sculptural force that is inseparable from their psychological power, and amounts to a fascinating distillation of the much admired samurai code.
A highlight of the show is the so-called “Mori Ensemble,” a display case presenting all the parts of a rare and highly valued ensemble of all these component parts dating to about 1600. The Mori clan were an important family of daimyo, or warlords.
The display includes a helmet and (mustachioed) half mask, shoulder guards, chest armor, protective skirt, sleeves, thigh protection, shin guards, and footwear. The weapons include a long bow, a long, curving sword, a military baton, a folding war fan, and an armor storage box.
Looking at it is like studying a compelling installation of esoteric conceptual art — bristling with connotations, many fated to remain mysterious, and all the more seductive for being so. (Surely a Matthew Barney samurai film can’t be far off?)
Samurai enthusiasts should note that the MFA display coincides with “Lethal Beauty,” a show of samurai weapons and armor at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., and with a fine exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. That show, “Portugal, Jesuits, and Japan,” explores the Portuguese incursion into Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries, and their introduction of firearms, which inevitably had consequences for the development of armor.
If there is one pity about the MFA show, it is a question not of content, nor even of design, but of taste. In one of the large galleries, a long wall is adorned with a considerably enlarged reproduction of one of the MFA’s most famous works: “Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace,” a 25-foot-long scroll painting from the larger series known as the “Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era.”
The enlarged reproduction of this thrilling, 13th-century work looks good enough as a backdrop, and with its wave of armor-clad soldiers mounting a bold attack on a burning palace, it is certainly relevant to the subject at hand. But why can’t we see the actual work, since it belongs to the MFA?
That’s easy: It is touring Japan in a show that has drawn over a million people — a show that, for reasons less than unconvincing, we will not have the privilege of seeing in Boston.
It is galling, in these circumstances, to have to make do with a reproduction — an enlarged, blurry reproduction at that.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this review mischaracterized the construction of horses in the exhibit. They are made from fiberglass and steel.