A gleaming metal headpiece. Intricately tooled leather. Braids of bright silk cord. If a samurai had met his end in such an elaborate suit of armor, could his death have been called a work of art?
That's just one of the many questions inspired by "Lords of the Samurai," a fascinating new exhibit organized by San Francisco's Asian Art Museum and Tokyo's Eisei-Bunko Hosokawa Collection. Occupying the Asian Art Museum's first-floor galleries, the show draws almost entirely from the collection of the Hosokawas, one of Japan's most distinguished warrior clans, in an attempt to give viewers a glimpse of the men beneath the armor.
Although their stories are well-known in Japan, to many Westerners samurai remain something of an enigma. Guardians of Japan's noble class, they've been mythologized in literature, cinema and pop culture ever since their fall in the mid-1800s with the restoration of Japanese imperial authority. For some, the samurai conjure visions of war and battlefield strategy. For others, they are symbols of honor and bravery.
Still, it might come as a surprise that Japan's iconic swordsmen were also highly accomplished poets, painters and aesthetes. Those who were of the daimyo class — or provincial warrior lords, like the Hosokawas — were especially artistic.
"The challenge for a lot of Western viewers is going to be the depiction (of the samurai)," says Cristina Lichauco, assistant registrar at the Asian.
"I think the more-Western view of the samurai is really focused on the military side," adds museum staffer Michele Dilworth. "From movies, you see the one-dimensional type of person who is kind of scary and off-putting. This exhibit really shows that there was a humanity there and another side to (samurai); there was an appreciation for the good things in life."
Those good things included brush painting and calligraphy. Other samurai were accomplished poets. Hosokawa Sansai, who was born in 1563, was a skilled woodworker. His eggplant-shaped lacquered-wood sake bottle and food box, which is on display, is a work of extraordinary craftsmanship.
"At the beginning (samurai) were military people," says exhibition curator Yoko Woodson, who serves as the museum's curator of Japanese art. Woodson is admiring a glistening 16th century hanging scroll depicting an armor-clad Hosokawa Sumimoto atop his muscular steed.
"Gradually, (samurai) realized that when peacetime came, they could not govern the land from horseback," she says.
Samurai had to be educated politicians. They had to be well-versed in writing, poetry and painting.
Many artworks, such as those of the ronin — or masterless samurai — Miyamoto Musashi, have educational and spiritual messages. Musashi's "Gorin No Sho" or "The Book of Five Rings" is a classic treatise on swordsmanship. A fragile 17th century copy, transcribed by his student Terao Katsunobu, is on view.
But the exhibit, while reflecting the lives and preoccupations of the samurai, expands to include the rulers and lords for whom the samurai protected, fought and died.
Appreciation of beauty
Focusing exclusively on the Hosokawa family, the exhibit exemplifies a warrior clan interested in works of art. It illustrates the rituals and customs of a family whose members delighted in collecting objects of beauty.
The 160 rotating works represent a fraction of the Hosokawas' rich holdings, which are normally housed at Tokyo's Eisei-Bunko Museum and the Kumamoto Municipal Museum in Kyushu. They include tea bowls, kettles, scoops and utensils of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and South Asian origin which were used for lavish tea ceremonies.
Also on display are sumptuous silk robes worn by actors who entertained the family with dramatic plays, or noh, and paste-resist hemp costumes that clothed the actors of comedies. And finely detailed hanging silk scrolls, executed by family artists, depict the porcelain-skinned faces of Hosokawa princesses.
A selection of contemporary tea bowls and vessels by former Japanese Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro, a direct descendant of the Hosokawa warrior clan, are also on display. They help illustrate the link between past and present.
"He is continuing the tradition," Woodson says as she admires a small raku tea bowl. She then points to Morihiro's playful stoneware lion and a 17th century hanging scroll.
The visual parallels between the lion and the painted tiger cavorting on the Edo-period scroll are striking.
"I think he definitely was inspired," Woodson says.
With such a rich artistic lineage, who wouldn't be?
Reach Jennifer Modenessi at jmodenessi@bayareanews group.com.