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Spectacular artistry, pageantry and tradition of Samurai culture to headed to VMFA with new exhibit

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) will present Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller from April 20 to August 4, 2024.

Trevor Dickerson

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The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) will present Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller — a spectacular exhibition featuring one of the world’s largest collections of stunning Japanese samurai armor — from April 20 to August 4, 2024. Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller will offer visitors a rare personal encounter with samurai artistry and tradition spanning more than 700 years of Japanese history.

For more than three decades, collectors Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller have been amassing their astounding collection of exquisitely crafted samurai regalia. The exhibition is organized by The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas.

At VMFA, Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller will showcase more than 140 examples of attire and objects, including 17 full suits of armor, weapons and equestrian equipment, and around 50 helmets and masks, all made between the 14th and 19th centuries.

“This is a rare chance to see these remarkable works of sheer artistic excellence that reflect samurai culture and legacy. Every object is unique and bears the maker’s exceptional skills, discipline, reverence for tradition and profound sense of honor. I encourage all to experience this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,” said Director and CEO Alex Nyerges.

Samurai, whose name means those who serve, were the highly respected Japanese military elites who rose to power in the 12th century. Samurai emulated Japanese courtiers, adopted aspects of Buddhism and Confucianism, conceived their own distinct culture and practiced a code of conduct called bushido. Since A.D. 1185, when the shogun, or military general, established the first Japanese military government, the samurai class continued to dominate the country’s politics and society until A.D. 1868, when imperial rule was restored.

“To see many suits of samurai armor in one place is an impactful experience,” said VMFA’s Curator of East Asian Art Li Jian. “Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller is one of the most important and extensive collections of its kind outside Japan, and VMFA is delighted to share these amazing works of masterful creativity and technique with Virginians.”

Iron, leather, brocade and precious and semiprecious metals were often used to produce suits of Japanese armor. The results were both strikingly beautiful and remarkably functional.

Many of the objects in Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller are from the Edo period (A.D. 1615–1868), a time of relative peace under the Tokugawa shogunate, headquartered in Edo, today’s Tokyo. The samurai retained their privileged status but served as bureaucrats and civic leaders rather than active warriors during the Edo period. Armor became a symbol of pageantry and prestige, reflecting political and social status and religious or secular values.

Full suits of armor were traditionally handed down from father to son, and older parts were often repurposed into new armor. In these suits of armor, the oldest components are usually the helmet bowl and the chest armor.

The legend of the samurai endures, and their influence remains deeply embedded in Japanese culture. Today, the samurai is a symbol of epic stature, whose tales of prestige and valor are depicted in anime cartoons, books, films, manga comics and video games.

VMFA will offer a variety of exhibition-related public events, programs and classes for all ages from April to August 2024. Lectures include an opening talk about the collection by Director of The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum Jessica Liu Beasley on April 18, 2024.

A talk titled Lethal Beauty: Design Elements in Samurai Suits of Armor will be presented on June 13, 2024, by Dr. Andreas Marks, the Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese and Korean Art and Director of the Clark Center at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Curator Li Jian’s talk on June 5, 2024, The Samurai Collection Connection, will explore connections between works in VMFA’s permanent collection and this special exhibition. Among the many programs planned during the run of the exhibition is a shibori textile workshop, a drumming performance by River City Taiko, an Intro to Manga class for youth and two screenings of Kagemusha by master film director Akira Kurosawa. The complete list of public events and programs can be found at www.vmfa.museum.

Tickets to the exhibition Samurai Armor from the Collection of Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller are now on sale: $15 for adults, $12 for seniors 65+, and $10 for youth ages 7–17 and college students with ID. Museums for All participants can purchase tickets to this special exhibition at the reduced price of $2 each with a limit of four tickets per Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. Tickets are free for VMFA members and children ages 6 and under. As a participant of Blue Star Museums, VMFA also provides free tickets for all active duty, National Guard and Reserve military personnel and their immediate families.

The exhibition catalogue, Art of Armor: Samurai Armor from the Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection, is published by The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum in association with the Yale University Press. The catalogue, which features 112 full-color images and essays by L. John Anderson, Sachiko Hori, Morihiro Ogawa, Thom Richardson, John Stevenson and Stephen Turnbull, will be available to purchase in the VMFA Shop.

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Trevor Dickerson is the Editor and Co-Founder of RVAHub.