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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Last Defense: The Genius of Japanese Meiji Metalwork

One hundred and fifty years ago samurai arms and armor overnight transformed from symbols of power and prestige of the samurai warrior class to nostalgic curios.  With the start of the Meiji revolution in 1868, power effectively transferred from the samurai class to the emperor.  In the arts, the decline of the samurai class most directly affected metalworkers who had to innovate and rescale their skills from making tour de force works of combat and defense to fine decorative works for the new flourishing export market as well as the court.  Instead of working for a samurai lord who would demand the best work regardless of cost, metalworkers and armorers had to appeal to a new clientele that desired quality as well as value for their money.  Last Defense: The Genius of Japanese Meiji Metalwork celebrates the ingenuity and creativity of the last generation of classically trained metalmakers during this rapid period of transition from the late 19th century into the new modern age.

Metalworking training in the previous Edo period (1603-1868) would start from an early age completing years of menial chores in the atelier of a master metalworker before receiving any substantial instruction.  Eventually, the successful apprentice would be adopted into the master’s family and then establish his own workshop to carry on their tradition of making.  Based on this strong foundation of Edo period craftsmanship, elite armorers such as the dominant four centuries-old Myochin family adapted their skills in remarkable ways.

Samurai arms and armor forms and techniques became inspiration for decorative artworks, such as an incense burner in the shape of a miniaturized helmet and a finely articulated dragon on view in the current exhibition.  As the new markets could not discern cheap imitations from fine works, however, master metalworkers had to lower their standards or shut down.  By the 1940s such outstanding mastery and splendor in metal making was rarely ever seen again.

-Vivian Li, Assistant Curator of Asian Art

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