photography & words | MATT STEFFEN
After weaving through the backstage catacombs of the Cincinnati Art Museum, we entered a dark room. PJ Grimm, Dressed to Kill‘s Lead Preparator, reflexively reached for the light switch, he clearly had made his way through this void before. With the light from the flicker of the bulbs overhead, I was greeted by eleven of history’s most feared warriors. They sat facing each other in a circle as if I’d just interrupted a gathering that started four hundred years earlier. I may have audibly inhaled.
When I was growing up, the Samurai were legendary. They were mythical defenders of the common man—a moral compass with a ruthless delivery system. An endless supply of comic books was filled with stories from a seemingly foreign, feudal Japan. Kurosawa’s epic 1954 film, Seven Samurai, brought their time and struggles to life. Hollywood then shifted the strong, silent heroes to the American palate in The Magnificent Seven. I felt that I knew the Samurai. Now, here I was standing in their presence, awestruck by the tools of their trade.
Many artifacts are on loan from local collector Gary Grose, who traces his ancestry to a Samurai family in Kyoto, and are exhibited among pieces from the museum’s own collection. Most are being seen publicly for the first time. These are not tattered, war-torn rags. Their condition makes it hard to believe that they have survived four centuries.
The Samurai were noblemen trained in the art of war during the Heian period. They rose to power and eventually became the preeminent military class of the feudal period from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Lifelong practitioners of the martial arts, they lived by a code known as bushidō or “the way of the warrior” which centered on self-restraint, loyalty, and most importantly death before dishonor.
Their armor was as fine as any piece hanging in the palaces they protected. No detail was overlooked and price was of no concern. Hundreds of hand-formed, quarter-inch spikes decorate a helmet in perfect symmetrical balance painted with a red lacquer undercoat, concealing one of the most expensive hues of that age. Painted inside the suneate, or shin guard, are brilliant gold dragonflies never to be seen by anyone other than the wearer. The tsuka, or handle, of the soldier’s sword were wrapped in exotic skins, often from stingrays. They were then laced intricately with a silk braid which concealed an ornament called a menuki.
Each Samurai suit of armor is made up of hundreds of pieces and is often composed of several suits from different regions and even periods. To find a complete suit means that it likely never saw use. The battle-tested elements that proved successful were pieced together to create new suits. Lighter, stronger, more flexible materials found their way into a warrior’s assemblage. With the advancements in technology, the Samurai were forced to evolve. Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the use of horse hair for the decorative mustache on the Samurai masks shifted to a less tactile, painted-on variation. PJ’s explanation of the change snapped me back into reality. He informed me the switch came about because blood would collect in the hair during battle and choke the warrior as it was aspirated. A painted mustache allowed the blood to flow. With the introduction of firearms, powder horns and musket ball pouches found their way into the accumulation. On the back of one suit was an intricate knot fastening an engraved fitting intended to hold a flag pole. Signifying the Samurai’s clan or cavalry, the flag allowed for easy identification during a chaotic battle, but it also created a literal target on their backs.
I found it easy to get lost in the details and the endless hidden minutiae that captured my attention on close inspection. Truth be told, when the suit was occupied, it would be best to not get that close at all. To be on the business end of these accouterments likely meant demise. A firm reminder of this is engraved into the steel of each sword. Known as mei, sword makers would engrave a virtual provenance into the tang, hidden under the ito braid. The mei would likely include the marks of the bladesmith’s name, province, or date. Found on some swords is the more sinister tameshi-mei which translates to “cutting signature” and records the practical results of tests performed on cadavers, and sometimes convicted criminals and prisoners of war. Words like “clavicle”, “hip cut”, “ankle cut” were not uncommon.
I wondered what could have possibly prepared PJ for the mounting of such an exhibit. Surely there is no Sixteenth Century Japanese Armor Hanging 101 offered at the local university. PJ shared that he had found an exhibition catalog from another institution with mounts visible in the photographs. With that as a starting point, he fashioned prototypes with painstaking trial and error. Once a working model was complete, he fabricated the mounts in wood, brass, plexiglass, or another appropriate substances which allowed him to achieve the goal of invisibility and support of the artifact with as little intrusion as possible. After a thorough but delicate cleaning, some minor repair work, and twelve months of preparation, the time came to install the work into the gallery with the help of Exhibition Designer Larry Malott and a handful of mounting, lighting, and signage specialists on the Cincinnati Art Museum staff.
The final exhibit is breathtaking. A small army of highly skilled warriors sits among their exquisite implements of destruction. The room is dark which protects the antiquities from the destructive nature of light while adding to the foreboding curiosity. The visors of the Samurai helmets shade the eyes of the masks inviting visitors to squat down, move in for a closer look, and inspect for the possibility of an inhabiter. The myth of the Samurai is made earthly again; the practicality and the meticulous craft of these suits are on full display. Only a rope separates observers from a long-gone day in a far-off land. There is a very palpable dichotomy in these objects—the literal meaning of and the wide expanse between the words martial and art, toeing the line between aggression and bloodshed, beauty and grace.
Dressed to Kill: Japanese Arms and Armor | February 11 – May 7, 2017 | Cincinnati Art Museum