WORCESTER — The Batman (good to get gripes out of the way early) is silly. It’s not a huge deal, folks, but there’s no getting around it. He may be the “Dark Knight” and the show, at Worcester Art Museum, might be called “Knights!” but he doesn’t belong in a gallery otherwise beautifully installed with a dozen military helmets.
Not all of those helmets, which date from 550 BC to the 19th century, are knights’ helmets. Two are Corinthian helmets used by hoplites; one is 18th-century Persian; there are Japanese and Ottoman helmets too. Each of these, along with a number of European helmets that more easily fit the designation “knightly,” is displayed in a glass case on a plinth. The plinths form two curving arcs that face one another in a gallery aptly titled “The Roundtable.”
So to have, presiding over this stately and elegant setup, a mannequin squeezed into a Lycra Batman costume designed by Bob Ringwood for Warner Bros. and custom-made to fit the actor Michael Keaton in 1988, really kills the mood.
Almost everything else about the show I liked. “Knights!” is the first attempt by Worcester Art Museum (WAM) to show off a fraction of its extraordinary new holdings, which it acquired last year, when the nearby Higgins Armory Museum closed down, beloved but insolvent, after 83 years.
Naturally, now that it has the collection, WAM wants its audience too. “Knights!” is the result. Mounting it only three months after the closure of the Higgins necessitated a massive and high-speed logistical effort by a team of dedicated staff. (Several are former Higgins employees subsequently taken on by WAM.)
But the display involved more than just practical challenges. Conceived and organized by WAM director Matthias Waschek, it is an attempt to meld an original, high-concept display with frank and unapologetic populism. In trying to be all things to all people, it risks falling between stools. But I don’t think it does.
The show is smart, it’s fun, and it practically falls over itself to be welcoming. Yes, at times, there is a little too much going on in a relatively small space. But the show’s experimental quality (reminiscent of the traditional method for testing the readiness of spaghetti: Throw it at the wall, see if it sticks) mostly enlivens the experience, and gets you thinking about the objects themselves in fresh ways. That, in the end, is what it’s all about.
You walk into “Knights!” after negotiating a marble-floored hall dominated by a fully armored knight astride a warhorse painted pink. The horse is flanked by vertical screens showing old black and white film footage (“Ivan the Terrible”), accompanied by a “Star Wars” soundtrack.
Next is a short hallway which has a tapestry, dated to around 1500 and depicting Godfrey of Bouillon, the first ruler of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Nearby is a display case holding a copy of the first comic book in which Batman was referred to as the “Dark Knight.”
So far so dizzying. Exciting? More or less. But mostly I remember just thinking, “Huh?”
Then, through a glass door, you enter the exhibition proper. What you see is not what you expect. Instead of suits of armor or swords and shields (there is plenty of all this to come, don’t worry) you are faced with five portraits of women. All are from the collection of WAM, and all date from the 16th and 17th centuries.
What a brilliant ploy! Anyone assuming the show will be all about war and weapons and boy-seducing, hypermasculine glamour— a.k.a. “all the dumb things men do” — will have to think again.
The display of portraits of women may seem random, but it is not. One of the paintings, by a follower of Tintoretto, is believed to be a portrait of the Venetian courtesan and author Veronica Franco, who once wrote this provocative passage about women:
“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death.”
Excellent stuff. These five portraits of women are faced across the room by five knights in armor. It’s a stirring standoff that conjures not just a battle between the sexes but a more disturbing conflict between human values and the inhuman machinery of war. Something, we instinctively grasp, is at stake in what will follow. Something vital.
Similar tensions are teased out in the second gallery, titled “The Dance of Love and War.” The first thing we see is a Roman marble bust of Venus. Its startling nudity is set against a “muscled cuirass,” a piece of Greek torso armor made from a sheet of beaten bronze that replicates a naked male torso. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition which drives home, more than anything, the vulnerability of human bodies, male and female, in mortal combat. It’s erotic too.
The highlight of this second gallery is neither armor nor weaponry, but a painting. It’s a painting from the workshop of Jan Brueghel the Elder and it roots the whole tradition of arms and armor in classical mythology. It depicts Venus (accompanied by Cupid) paying a visit to the forge of her husband, Vulcan, in order to ask him to make armor for her son Aeneas.
The painting, which was in the Higgins collection before coming to WAM, is jam-packed with details that illustrate, in textbook fashion, every stage of the process of making armor: smelting iron, beating out the slag, hot-working and cold-working the metal, grinding and buffing. There’s even a spurting volcano in the distance, a great source of iron ore.
A touchscreen on a nearby stand — one of several in the show — homes in on all this, and explains, too, the significance of the mythological scene. Across the small room is a piece of ceremonial armor embossed with the figures of Mars and Cupid and an array of symbolically loaded animals (a dove for peace, an owl for the goddess Minerva, a stag for prudence, etc).
Throughout the show, including the next gallery (the display of helmets designed to conjure the Round Table), wall labels are relatively scarce and devoid of long explanatory texts. Touchscreens have been preferred. More negotiable, they offer great potential for deeper exploration. In this case, they are also admirably lucid and straightforward to use.
You move from the Round Table Gallery (all these rooms are small) to a space dominated by a pink Triumphal Arch. All kinds of weapons, from a Sudanese spear to a Massachusetts halberd, have been set down and balanced against the arch. It’s a curatorial ploy (designed to suggest the ceremonial laying down of arms) that doesn’t quite come off. If I were to describe it, punningly, as “arch,” you would get the same effect — a sort of “Ooh. O-kay. . .”
Immediately after this, startlingly, comes “Helmutt’s House.” It’s a small but wonderful space for kids replete with colorful cushions, a toy chest filled with toy armor you can try on and check out in a kid-sized mirror, and plenty of books. Helmutt, a small mutt, was a mascot at the Higgins Armory. It struck me as a savvy move not only to adopt him for “Knights!” but to have this space inside the show, rather than cordoned off in a separate part of the museum.
There follows a series of corridors with more traditional, dramatically lighted, and gorgeously framed displays of various weapons. There are many swords from Europe (some very old) as well as fine examples of swords and daggers from Japan, Africa, Tibet, India, and China.
The twist in the show’s tale — it comes right after a brief display of carbines and muskets — comes right at the end, where we enter a space that aims to remind us of “the real world ramifications of violence.”
A collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, this small show-within-the-show includes a slideshow and framed photographs of gunshot wounds, dead bodies, gang warfare, and criminal culture in Mexico and Guatemala.
It’s confronting stuff, and an apt slap around the cheeks, I suppose, for anybody feeling primed for real world battle after seeing so many charismatic weapons. I don’t know if the show needs it, but again, the thinking is clear, and bound to stimulate some interesting discussions.
The show as a whole is a boisterous, overwrought mishmash that nonetheless delivers a real experience. It has lots of surprises, and some really engaging ideas, especially in the first two rooms.
It’s a first step in a long-term plan (dependent on funds) to put a lot more of the Higgins collection on display at WAM. When that happens, I hope the conceptual horsepower revving and growling under the hood of this show is converted into something slightly less manic but no less engaging.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.