Confections of pleated rope and metal. Helmets in the shape of snarling dragons, toothy eels and a flaming jewel. Plus warriors on horseback charging through an exhibtion hall adorned with a blood-red ceiling. The exhibition "Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is not some dusty arms-and-armor show.
For one, there's the cinematic design installation (by Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY Architecture). Plus, there's the nature of the works themselves — pieces of primarily ceremonial armor from the 19th century, when the samurai phenomenon was at the end of its roughly 700-year run. It's a show with a lot of drama.
One piece, however, is a standout: a suit crafted in the middle of the 19th century with an elaborate feathered helmet in the shape of a ferocious-looking mythical bird demon known as a tengu, a creature that is often associated with the art of warfare. This half-man/half-bird figure is a common motif in Japanese art. LACMA, in fact, has various pieces in its permanent collection that depict the creature in various guises. These include an exquisite turn-of-the-19th century mask, as well as a hilariously cartoonish Kitagawa Hidemaro block print from the early 1800s, which shows a tengu being born.
"It's one of the most visually striking pieces in the show," curator Robert T. Singer, who also oversees LACMA's Japanese art department, says of the armor. "You're not looking at a human face. It's an animal face."
There are the other details, too: the hemp skirt that dangles like a bird's tail, the elaborately stiched leather apron and the rope tassles that hang from the armor's chest. Then there is the way the armor reflects the outline of a rippling warrior body (hubba hubba).
"I particularly love the articulation of the muscles and the ribs in the breastplate," Singer says. "You see the sinews in the arm. It makes it really unusual, really powerful."
The suit would have been used for ceremonial purposes, for the long processions that warriors made from their home towns to Edo (what is now Tokyo). As they rode through the countryside, this elaborate gear would have been intended as the ultimate tough guy fashion statement. Explains Singer: "Essentially, they're showing off."
"Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection" is on view through Feb. 1 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, lacma.org.