Visual Art » Art

Better Than Some Dumb Sword

The Samurai! Exhibit Is Badass

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WE ALL KNOW the guy with the samurai sword. It hangs on his wall in a place of prominence—perhaps dangling over his bed—or maybe he's got it in one of those specially made little samurai sword racks. It's his pride and joy, and he won't let anyone touch it. You suspect it's a Mickey Mouse knockoff made in a factory for ame-koh suckers, but he insists the sword is authentic and that it cost a fortune.

The sword might be the most overestimated artifact of samurai culture. Historically, swords were rarely used in combat. Most Japanese samurai fought with bow and arrow, with the sword as a weapon of last resort. There are almost no swords in Samurai!, a staggering exhibit of samurai artifacts on display at the Portland Art Museum. Instead, the collection focuses on the remarkable, intricate armor made for Japanese warriors and lords in the 14th through 19th centuries, along with helmets, masks, saddles, and related pieces of antiquity. Some of it's weird, some of it's frightening, some of it's cute—and all of it betrays an almost unfathomable level of craftsmanship and intricate detail. At the risk of sounding like the kind of dude who collects fake samurai swords, this exhibition is badass.

The pieces come from the vast collection of the Barbier-Muellers, a wealthy Texas family that apparently owns some pretty cool stuff. Just beyond the main entrance are three samurai on horseback, kitted in full combat gear. It's a dazzling first impression that gives a sense of the proportions and what it might actually be like to encounter these guys on the battlefield. The armor is assembled from iron, leather, silk, and other materials, much of it heavily lacquered and constructed to maintain a balance that's protective and (relatively) lightweight and flexible.

Further sets of armor line the gallery halls, and no two look remotely alike. There are outrageously complicated helmets with baroque details that you'll need to peer at closely; there are suits of gold, silver, bronze, copper, and bear fur. It's a huge and gorgeous collection, displaying the pageantry of the samurai era in revealing and unfamiliar ways. It is awesome—go see it.

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