Art Review: Armed, dangerous and beautiful

This type of Japanese dagger or Tanto was carried by warriors and is a part of the exhibit 'Armed + Dangerous: Art of the Arsenal' at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.  The exhibition also includes long swords and a full suit of armor made for a samurai.

Courtesy Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass.

This type of Japanese dagger or Tanto was carried by warriors and is a part of the exhibit "Armed + Dangerous: Art of the Arsenal" at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The exhibition also includes long swords and a full suit of armor made for a samurai.

Armed + Dangerous: Art of the Arsenal, newly installed in the main exhibition galleries at the Brooks, has a title worthy of an action movie. Like a fast-paced caper film, the display of over 125 examples of arms and armor will appeal to visitors on many levels.

"When the Berkshire Museum first installed it, they had no intention of traveling the exhibition," says chief curator Marina Pacini. "When I found out about it, I thought it was perfect for the Brooks. We hadn't done anything like this, and I loved the range of materials included in the exhibition."

Polished armor, ready for jousting or parades, was the power suit of the past. This 16th century German field armor is covered with impressive ornamental detailing.

Courtesy Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, Mass.

Polished armor, ready for jousting or parades, was the power suit of the past. This 16th century German field armor is covered with impressive ornamental detailing.

The 19th century hand-shaped sword topped by a chameleon was made in Dahomey, the modern state of Benin. The form is associated with a fierce troop of women soldiers who guarded the king.

Photo by Karla Klein Albertson

The 19th century hand-shaped sword topped by a chameleon was made in Dahomey, the modern state of Benin. The form is associated with a fierce troop of women soldiers who guarded the king.

"The exhibition offers a number of different entry points, whether you're interested in military history, the technology, the various cultures, or the artistic styles. I think it will appeal to a broad section of the community."

The show was organized by the Berkshire Museum, an institution with science, history, and art collections in Pittsfield, Mass. They had received a formidable weapons collection from Cortland Field Bishop, a colorful local figure with a penchant for car racing.

Putting together the exhibition, the Berkshire borrowed heavily from the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass., which contains the lifetime collection gathered by industrialist John Woodman Higgins.

Kids will love the shining suits for knights of old, and enjoy trying on helmets in the hands-on section. Grandpa may linger over the antique rifles, while fashionistas will be amazed by the high style decorative details added to warrior wear.

Does "Project Runway" have a make-some-armor week? Obviously what began as basic offensive and defensive gear gradually became ceremonial in the showiest way. A pair of 19th century Persian chain mail pants are chic enough to go from the battlefield to the dance floor.

Three suits of European armor from the 16th and 17th centuries were literally the power suits of the past. Worn at one time to protect from killing blows in the field, armor was later reserved for public appearances and jousting contests.

As the label explains, "The suits of armor for royalty and nobility were often highly decorated by skilled craftsmen who engraved, chiseled, etched, and embossed designs on the steel surface. Gilding, a technique which embellished the surface with gold, added another luxurious element to the suit of armor and status to wearer."

Pacini points out, "One of the things I like about this exhibition is that it allows people to compare objects from very different cultures, to see the similarities and the differences." Asian martial arts fans will enjoy a gallery filled with Japanese swords and daggers, including a decorated katana and a tanto with carved bone handle.

Nearby, a mannequin displays a suit of 19th century samurai armor borrowed from the Art Museum University of Memphis. Lighter than European counterparts, the protective outfit is constructed of metal plates held together with leather and silk.

Pacini's favorite exhibit is a mysterious sword from Benin, formerly Dahomey, which is made in the form of a hand and arm topped by a chameleon. She says, "It's really extraordinary. The Berkshire brought in some African experts who said it's an extremely rare piece."

The 19th century arm-shaped blade has a riveting back story. Explanatory material notes: "Conveying great status, these swords were used by the high ranking officials in the military and political hierarchy. Symbolic animal imagery was common; the chameleon is known for its cunning, dexterity, and unique ability to change its skin color."

This sword form was connected to a regiment of women warriors known as Mino, or "Our Mothers," who served the king as body guards and elite soldiers in the Kingdom of Dahomey.

Volunteer State gun collectors may head straight for the small gallery displaying antique firearms. On view are a pair of French flintlock dueling pistols from 1826, an American pewter powder horn, an Elgin 1837 cutlass pistol, and a rifled musket made at the Springfield Armory in 1863.

"There are just so many extraordinary things," says Pacini. "I'm fascinated that the human impulse to decorate found its way into the creation of arms and armor. These are highly functional objects with a very specific use; still they are beautifully decorated."

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Armed + Dangerous: Art of the Arsenal

The exhibit continues through March 11, 2012, at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar Ave. in Overton Park. Audio tours of the exhibition are available at no extra cost. A related film series during the show's run will include Akira Kurusawa's "Yojimbo" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, visit brooksmuseum.org or call 901-544-6200.

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