Dressed to Kill, From Head to Toe
Met Show Recalls Bashford Dean, Armor Curator
The Metropolitan Museum began collecting arms and armor almost as soon as it began collecting paintings, and in many cases the donors were the same. The baronial impulse that drove rich Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to hang old masters in the dining room also encouraged them to display suits of armor in the front hall. William Randolph Hearst, one of the most enthusiastic collectors, had an entire armory in his Riverside Drive penthouse: enough pikes, halberds, helms, hauberks, greaves, gauntlets, cuisses and cuirasses to outfit a crusade.
Arms and armor officially became a department at the Met in 1912, and the museum is commemorating this centennial and the department’s founding curator with a small exhibition, “Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department,” that opened on Tuesday in the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gallery.
(Mr. Sulzberger, the former publisher of The New York Times who died last week, was another newspaperman with a fondness for arms and weaponry.) Most of the objects on display are not remarkable — or not when compared with some of the more spectacular hardware in the galleries nearby: the four mounted knights cantering down the middle of the Bloomberg Court, say, or the two side-by-side, before-and-after suits of armor made for Henry VIII, one when he was young and slender and another when he was fat and gouty.
A couple of the pieces in the Bashford Dean show are not even authentic. They’re replicas — very good ones — that were fabricated in a sort of chop shop that Dean established at the Met for repairing armor that was broken or dinged and replacing parts of an armor set that were missing. Most of the other objects — some helmets, breastplates, a couple of swords — all of which are connected to Bashford Dean in one way or another, are stuff that the Met, whose armorial holdings are vast, seldom bothers to take out of storage. The most striking piece is a dragon’s head helmet made for Henry II of France when he was dauphin, with bat ears, protruding eyebrows and an enormous snail-like snout. It looks like something from the bar scene in “Star Wars.” But the most unusual item, a moon-rock-looking chunk of stone that may have been lobbed by a 13th-century catapult into a Crusader fort, is not armor at all but, rather, proof of why wearing a helmet was such a good idea back then.
In many ways the most outstanding piece of work on display here is Bashford Dean himself. Dean (1867-1928) was one of those tireless and eccentric polymaths that the 19th century turned out in such profusion. He entered City College at 14. Ten years later he had earned a doctorate in zoology and paleontology from Columbia University, where he became a full professor. He was also the first curator of fish at the Museum of Natural History (where his specialties included placoderms, or armored fish), and he wrote or collaborated on some 175 books and scientific papers, including a three-volume “Bibliography of Fishes.”
In the beginning armor was just a hobby for Dean, starting when he was 9 and tried to buy a helmet at auction, but gradually it became his real life’s work. He married money, moved into Wave Hill, the Bronx estate that is now a public garden, and built an armor hall there to house a growing collection amassed on trips abroad. Next to a 19th-century Japanese suit of lacquered iron-leather-and-silk armor at the Met there is a life-size photograph of Dean, a bearded, lantern-jawed gent, wearing the very same outfit and holding a samurai sword. In another photograph, taken on the lawn at Wave Hill, he is wearing a suit of 16th-century Italian plate armor. Scholarship and connoisseurship aside, what was the point of owning armor unless you could occasionally suit up and clank around?
In 1904 Dean was a guest curator at the Met, organizing a large collection of armor the museum had purchased from the Duc de Dino; in 1906 he became an honorary (unpaid) curator, and in 1912, without giving up ichthyology, he went to work for the Met full time. He raised funds for the department, bought armor, wheedled it from collectors and donated to the museum most of his own acquisitions. During World War I he advised the United States Army on helmet and body-armor design, and afterward published a book on the subject, “Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare,” that is still surprisingly readable.
As a curator Dean was almost too successful. The armor collection grew so large that from the mid-1940s to the ’70s the museum more or less stopped buying any more, and even now the permanent armor galleries (which in honor of the centennial have been relighted and in many cases supplied with new labels) are really Dean’s legacy. It’s hard to imagine how, in our age of war weariness and small apartments, anyone else could feel so passionately about this stuff.
The armor at the Met is testament to two enduring and seemingly contradictory human traits. On the one hand, it’s an example of the fantastic and ingenious lengths we will go to kill other people while simultaneously keeping ourselves from being killed. Much of the knightly panoply at the Met is really the product of a deadly arms race: with the advent of the crossbow and then early firearms the armor got thicker, more elaborate and more sculptural. At the same time the armor at the Met is a demonstration of our obsessive need to adorn and to embellish, to turn ordinary objects and even lethal ones into things of beauty.
Most of the pieces in the collection are high end, expensive even in their day, and were probably never used in actual combat. They were worn in jousts or for ceremonial occasions. But even an ordinary foot soldier’s helmet in the Dean exhibition is decorated with fluting and metal studs, and a breastplate has been worked at the neck and armholes to look like braid. Some of the Met’s fancier pieces, like the 16th-century armor of George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, are etched, embossed, blued or gilded over every square inch, so that they look almost more like fabric than metal. A ceremonial suit of arms made for Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor, is minutely etched all over and has a likeness of the Madonna and Child on the breastplate.
A goal of the great armorers, you feel, was to make metal come alive and turn it into something else. This is especially true in the case of the 16th-century steel-and-gold helmet made by Filippo Negroli, probably the greatest of his generation of armorers, in which a mermaid arches backward over the top holding a gorgon above her head and over the visor while her tail, in the back, turns into acanthus branches with little putti peeking out. The whole thing is at least as elaborate as the metalwork of Benvenuto Cellini and resembles a special effect from a “Transformers” movie.
This helmet (which was once owned by J. P. Morgan, though regrettably the Met has no photograph of him wearing it) would be absolutely useless in battle of course and represents instead another great armorial subtext: the boundlessness of male vanity. The most eye-catching of these suits of armor, like George Clifford’s, were costumes, really: the ultimate power suit, meant to impress and intimidate. Some of them left very little to the imagination. The Ferdinand armor, the set with the Madonna in front, also includes a hard-to-miss banana-shaped codpiece.
The message such armor sent was that the owner was fashionable enough to order it, rich enough to afford it, martial enough to wear it. He was strong, virile and impervious, at least symbolically, to spears and arrows, to sword thrust and pike whack — to just about everything except rust.
“Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department” runs through Sept. 29, 2013, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.
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