By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (May 25, 2010) – The Consul General of Japan at Chicago, George Hisaeda, was present at Minneapolis Institute of Arts Tuesday, to present certificates of appreciation for preserving and increasing its nearly century old collection of Japanese art – and for its most recent prized acquisition of samurai armor.
Hisaeda spoke on the importance of art as a way to better understand cultures, which impacts public impression – and said the MIA investment in Japanese art is second to few, if any other museum in the United States.
Hisaeda said the shogun class armor is in exquisite condition from more than a century under one owner – and dates to the early 17th century Tokugawa family that ruled during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868. He said the hearts of the MIA staff must have “skipped a beat or two” when they learned that their bid was accepted at the Christies auction.
“Such armor must have impressed everyone then just as it does all of us today,” said Hisaeda. “It is much more than a practical military item. It is a window to the world of all samurai. It is a true work of art created by master craftsmen.”
Once it was learned that the armor was coming to MIA, Hisaeda said he wanted to do something special to celebrate this acquisition and to recognize MIA for its outstanding dedication to Japanese art and bringing it to Minnesota and the Midwest.
He also presented a special Japanese Commendation to Dr. Matthew Welch, Assistant Director of Collections and Chair of Asian Art at MIA, “for his distinguished service in deepening our understanding and friendship.”
Diane Lilly, MIA Board Chair, and a senior vice president and chief government relations officer for Wells Fargo, said the Japanese art collection has historically been an important and integral part of MIA, with its first donations coming from the museum founder prior to 1915.
Lilly said the collection has grown to more than 5,000 works of Japanese art, including one of the most renowned woodblock collections currently on tour in Japan. She said the armor exhibit is relatively new, and enhances the audience hall and teahouse; two complete rooms that bring context and synergy for viewing art, she added.
“The Japanese collection has always been at the core of things that we do,” said Lilly.
The Japanese collection has grown from three to fifteen galleries since 1990, and Lilly credits Dr. Welch and the Asian gallery staff with expanding the Japanese permanent collection into one of the largest in the United States.
Dr. Welch said he was doubly pleased to be honored for doing something he loves. He recalled that as a young medical student, taking a Japanese art class changed his life. A few years later he was studying art in Japan, and he said since 1990 his experience at MIA has been an incredible experience.
Talking about the recent acquisitions, Welch said the Japanese art of the Edo period and the armor in particular, demonstrates the influence that samurai culture had on Japanese art, from the Noh drama, the tea ceremony and the military arts and armor.
“Japanese samurai culture has exerted a tremendous influence on the development of Japanese art,” said Welch. “So many things that even Americans think of as being quintessentially Japanese actually emerged from Samurai culture.”
Welch said that he waited 20 years to find a work of samurai armor that is not only in pristine condition but was also a shogun class suit. The craftsmanship of this suit, and particularly the helmet, went further than typical battle wear of the Edo period with a facemask, forearm sleeves, thigh and shin guards and boots.
He said this suit is special for its bear-fur boots and its exquisite work in utilizing iron, leather, lacquer, silk, wood, gold leaf and powder for its four panel skirt and helmet.
“While many suits of armor come on the market, most of them are pedestrian – warn by ordinary foot soldiers – and so not particularly artistic,” said Welch.
Helmets of the day had leather woven iron crimped plates that were ribbed together, they number 28 or 64 in number; while this suit displays 124 plates, hardened with lacquer and gold – in what Welch said was a craftsman displaying an ability to master the materials.
Japanese armor is unique for its flexibility and how it accordions to expand and back and forth – much different than the clumsy European armor. The genius of Japanese armor, Welch said, is its light, form-fitting flexible combat design – possible with the hundreds of lacquered metal and leather plates sewn together with leather cords.
“The other thing is that of course most of them were used and so are in terrible condition,” he added. “Remember, that with the founding of the Edo Period, Japan entered a protracted era of peace. So, while this suit of armor in all likelihood was created with the idea of actually heading into battle with it – the owner wouldn’t have had that chance and was at peace until the restoration of the emperor in 1868.”
Welch described how this suit contains delicately painted designs of symbolic animals, including the helmet crest – a gold preying mantis standing out several inches in what he said would be a terrifying mythological image as a ferocious warrior.
He described the descending phoenixes painted on the plates covered in indigo dyed leather that imply the realm of a just ruler. Other paintings include sea tortoises with long choral encrusted trains, to suggest longevity. These and the dragons and lion dogs are all associated with auspicious mythology and denote great power, he added.
This particular armor may have been made for Tokugawa Yorinobu (1602-71), a feudal lord of Kii Province, known for his appreciation of fine arts and Welch said many think would have likely commissioned such a suit.
Clan marks on the armor lend evidence to its origin, which Welch said is also known to come from the daimyo collection from the Kii treasury of Wakayama Castle, where Yorinobu was the tenth son of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the supreme general who founded the Kamakura shogunate that ruled from 1600 to 1868 in a bifurcated system with the emperor who ruled ceremoniously as the divine descendent of the sun god.
The Edo period in 1867 when the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, surrendered to Emperor Mutsuhito and the Meiji era began.
The armor was acquired in the 19th century by Idemitsu Shokai, who went on to found Idemitsu Shokai, a petrochemical firm that is now known as Idemitsu Kosan Co., Ltd. Welch said Idemitsu was a collector of Japanese and Chinese art and the suit remained with the Idemitsu Institute until it recently decided to focus its collection and began selling off certain pieces including this armor.