Of the many branches of contemporary art’s gnarled and twisted family tree, arms and armor appears to be a particularly precarious limb, a long-dead branch likely to be pruned off by any serious storm. More than any other field of art history, arms and armor have come to be associated with the dimly-lit studies of the super rich, typified by Bruce Wayne’s manor in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. “Check this out. He must have been the king of the Wicker People.”
There are those of us, though, who notice things in that scene, that most viewers miss: For example, the completely anachronistic juxtaposition, on the armors flanking the door, of close helms and breastplates from the sixteenth century, with eleventh century kite shields decorated with swirling-armed crosses. Five hundred years of history separate the former from the latter, no less than separates the latter from the present day. A close helm would have been as out of place at the battle of Hastings as an Abrams tank at the court of Henry VIII.
Most people watching Batman, even artists and art viewers, wouldn’t know the difference, and couldn’t care less, and in fact would probably imagine the previous paragraph being read aloud in the voice of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. The appreciation of arms and armor is easily treated as an oddball, nerdy fringe of art history, and tainted by association with violence: undergraduate art history survey courses rarely cover the difference between a bascinet and a burgonet. Contrast this with the expectation that anyone with a degree in art, in any medium, should easily recognize the painting The Joker later defaces as Rembrandt’s late self-portrait, and the one he spares as one of Bacon’s popes.
Arms and armor may not be appreciated by as wide of an audience as is painting, but they have their fans, and I’m one of them. As a kid, I remember going to visit my family in Philadelphia, and we must have gone to the art museum; I remember a seeing, just in passing, some maces in a display case and becoming totally enamored. My dad bought me a book on arms and armor on that same trip, and I’ve still got it, much abused and well loved. In my teens my mom bought me a book on the arms and armor of the medieval knight, and I’ve still got that one too. The summer before I went away to college, I went to Europe with my girlfriend at the time, and each time we visited a new city I sought out its arms and armor museum: Vienna and Dresden were both quite memorable, though that latter city sadly lost much of its collection in the firebombing it experienced in World War II.
In August of 2007, I was attending a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, before moving to Chicago to join my wife Stephanie Burke, who had just started school at SAIC. She called me to tell me about the wonderful collection of arms and armor she’d seen at the Art Institute. I arrived a month later, headed down to the Art Institute, and found the long, dimly-lit hall…completely empty, save for a single display case with a few swords lingering.
The hall was the Art Institute’s Gunsaulus Hall, which housed the Art Institute’s fantastic collection of arms and armor until late 2007. Three years later, a small selection of the collection was put on display in the Art Institute’s Galleries 235 and 236, where it remains on view today. The exhibition space is small and so the percentage of the collection that can be shown is necessarily quite limited (although its ceilings are high enough to display an armor for man and horse with the rider mounted, something never before possible at the Art Institute). In that display, a sign indicates that this small display is temporary, pending the completion of a new, much larger exhibition space for the collection, at an undetermined future date.
The Art Institute’s collection of arms and armor comes from the estate of George F. Harding, Jr. (1868-1939), a Chicago businessman and politician who amassed an incredible collection of arms and armor as well as other art and artifacts from around the world. In 1927, Harding expanded his Hyde Park home, adding upper stories emulating a castle. He used this “castle” as a museum to display his collection of arms and armor.
The castle was torn down in 1964 as part of an urban renewal project, and the collection was moved to a building, closed to the public, at Randolph and Michigan. The museum’s chairman, Herman Silverstein, along with his wife Bea, was the subject of a lawsuit by the Illinois attorney general’s office in 1976, accusing the Silversteins of “violating IRS regulations concerning charitable trust laws by mismanaging the museum assets and failing to allow public viewing of the relics.” The Silversteins agreed in count in 1989 to resign, and to turn over to the Art Institute the last $4.1 million of the Harding Museum’s cash assets, to be used to conserve and display the collection. The Harding collection itself had been turned over to the Art Institute in 1982, under pressure from the State.
The bulk of the Art Institute’s collection remains in storage, out of view, but even the small selection on display is well worth seeing. There’s also a book, Arms and Armor at The Art Institute of Chicago, by Walter J. Karcheski Jr., out of print but available online very inexpensively. For my dear fellow viewers who appreciate this odd branch of our culture’s visual history, we will have to content ourselves with these, until the Art Institute makes room for a larger exhibition space for this world-class collection.