July 7, 2009
Visiting the Asian Art Museum's Lords of the Samurai exhibition the other day in San Francisco turned out to be marked by an unlikely interest in the finer things of life such as high fashion.
Running till September 20, the exhibition focuses on daimyo -- the provincial lords of the warrior class in feudal Japan. The exhibition features more than 160 works from the Hosokawa family collection (the Hosokawa clan was a powerful family of military nobles with a 600-year-old lineage) from the Eisei-Bunko Museum in Tokyo, and from Kumamoto Castle and the Kumamoto Municipal Museum in Kyushu. Objects on view include suits of armor, armaments (including swords and guns), formal attire, calligraphy, paintings, tea wares, lacquerware, masks, and musical instruments.
The most eye-catching items on display are undoubtedly the beautifully preserved and detailed examples of warrior armor. There are also lots of incredibly lethal-looking weapons and important-looking scrolls.
What was more surprising, were the parts of the exhibition dealing with samurai culture. It's hard to imagine these fierce warriors in their imposing helmets stopping on the warpath to eat picnics out of a set of gorgeous lacquered bento boxes or engaging in perfume-concocting and smelling parties with the aid of delicate little scent jars. But apparently these warriors had exceedingly refined tastes.
This impression extended even to the atmosphere of our visit. When the friend I was with, Alain, walked in to the coat check to leave his bag, the staffer on duty commented on his T-shirt (which had a buddha logo on it.) Then, when we entered one of the galleries, a museum docent told Alain that his hairdo reminded him of how the more modern samurai would wear their hair -- Al had some of his long, curly locks trussed up in a ponytail. The early samurai, the docent told us, would have shave their foreheads alongside wearing ponytails.
The Asian Art Museum's website includes a fascinating page all about little known samurai facts. John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood could clearly learn a thing or two from the Hosokawa clan.