Sunday, 25 November 2012

Seeing the Samurai Exhibition in Rotterdam

Rotterdam boasts the Netherlands’ second largest infrastructure and is said to have the most extensive harbor in the world in terms of transactions. It is known for the Boijmans van Beuningen museum, which has a famous collection, and for the Kunsthal, which, while it does not have its own collection, shows consecutive, well-polished exhibitions (and now, of course, known for the recent large-scale art theft, as well..). The city center that was brought down by bombs in the war is represented now by architectural works spearheaded in that period; the first of which were the Cube houses.

At some distance from the city center and the harbor, is the World Museum. Rather than one of Rotterdam’s modern pieces of architecture, it is a traditional Dutch building which was restored and re-released in 2009 as a museum. The World Museum offers a collection made up of roughly two thousand objects from Asia and Oceania, relating mainly to religion.

It is here that an exhibition has opened which is gathering much attention in the Netherlands. The exhibition’s title is “SAMURAI”. Although it is an exhibition on Japanese weapons and armor, it approaches the concept of Bushi, from a different side, represented by the samurai’s manner of doing battle, and considers on its reverse the zen-guided mental world, stepping into the unique culture that was born from this in an ambitious manner. Besides the suits of armor, helmets, swords, banners, and battle emblems, there is an overwhelming collection of as many as three hundred objects: Nō masks representing the art of Nō, loved by the military commanders; a number of ukiyoe prints of the warriors; folding screens upon which scenes of battle are depicted. Especially the room in which the suits of armor and helmets have been so arranged as to give the impression of military commanders holding a strategy meeting, and the room exhibiting just the collection of helmets, make the exhibition a pleasure to behold.

In the Netherlands, where the Japanese-Dutch friendship now spans more than four hundred years, a large amount of Japanese objects are kept at Leiden’s Siebold collection or the National Museum of Ethnology, but for this exhibition most of the armor and helmets were provided by Florence’s Stibbert Collection. At the end of the eighteenth century, the East India Company’s governor-general of the Bengal area, Giles Stibbert had amassed a fortune, and his grandson Frederick put together his massive inheritance to turn his own villa into a museum. After Frederick’s death, the collection was donated to Florence, and although currently open to the general public, its location at the outskirts of Florence is perhaps disadvantageous, and apparently the collection is not visited much.

Despite many of Japan’s helmets and suits of armor having been lost to foreign countries, I am happy that, thanks to collectors such as this, Japanese people have the chance to see these pieces again. Most of the armor and weapons still in Japan have been passed on generation upon generation as the daimyō’s possessions; but the armor on display at this exhibition is, rather than a lord’s possessions, mostly those of the higher and lower classes of warriors. In the Edo period warriors’ lives grew difficult, as if in compensation for enjoying peace, and when the suits of armor which had been passed down for generations were sacrificed for the sake of daily survival, the family crests and old names were erased from them. It is because of this that we still do not know who the original owners were. Might, someday, these suits of armor come home to Japan?

One last thing: the sword and folding screen gifted to the Dutch king Willem the Third by the Tokugawa shogunate, as well as the missive giving notice of permission to establish trade with the Dutch, despite Japan’s being already totally isolated, are items in the exhibition which one truly does not often have the chance to see; they form a true centerpiece to the exhibition.
Rotterdam’s “SAMURAI” exhibition will be open until the 24th of March 2013 (the museum is closed on Mondays).
Willemskade 22-25
3016 DM Rotterdam
the Netherlands
Opening times:
Tuesday through Sunday 10:30-17:30
Closed every Monday, and on 1 January, 30 April and 25 December