The Janssen Collection
It was only at the end of the 19th century that Japan first introduced the West to its culture and participated for the first time in the world expositions held in Vienna and Paris in 1873 and 1887. This generated an incredible fascination with Japanese art and culture, and gave rise to extensive and culturally significant collections featuring countless examples of samurai art. The 20th century saw many of these collections dissolved or lost. Since then, this branch of Japanese culture has moved out of the European spotlight.
Ian Bottomley, Curator Emeritus of Oriental Collections at the Royal Armouries Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of arms and armour, says of the Janssen Collection:
“In the late 19th century Western culture was revolutionised when it discovered the sophistication and novelty of the arts developed in Japan during its 230 years of isolation from the rest of the world. Japonism became a craze as artists and collectors scrambled to acquire woodblock prints, lacquer ware and other items that had begun to appear in antique and curio shops. Tourists flocked to Japan to see for themselves the final days of a fast vanishing society, bringing back souvenirs to adorn their homes, not least being the arms and armour of the samurai, the hereditary military class that had dominated Japanese society for almost 1000 years. Many saw these items simply as curiosities, but others recognised the superlative quality and artistry they showed.
It was exactly these attributes that were recognised some 30 years ago by Peter Janssen who sought out and began to acquire examples of the finest quality, building up a large collection of Japanese arms and armour that can have few if any rivals anywhere in the world. Peter Janssen is now making his magnificent collection available to others, both for study by experts or simply to be admired by others. In his new, purposely-built Samurai Art Museum, visitors can see for themselves some of the finest products of Japan’s armourers, swordsmiths, lacquer workers and makers of sword fittings.
While some of the armours and helmets were made to protect their wearers on the battlefield, others were made for Japan’s aristocracy, to be worn as an indication of their rank and status. Also displayed are swords carried by some of Japan’s highest nobles, blades treasured in families for centuries and sword fittings produced by artists whose exquisite workmanship has never been equalled. Their products in iron, gold, silver and metallic alloys depict scenes from nature, from myths and legends as well as everyday objects in such minute detail as to almost defy belief. Art is displayed here in almost infinite variety. In short, the Samurai Art Museum offers visitors an experience that will delight and surprise how imaginative and consummately beautiful Japan’s applied arts can be.”
At a young age, Peter Janssen left his home in East Frisia, North-East Germany, to travel the world. On his travels, he met a Japanese man named Takashi Kanazashi, who gave him his first insight into Japanese culture. His passion led Janssen to become a collector and the collection of Japanese samurai art became his life’s work. Over decades, he compiled one of the world’s largest samurai collections with items from across the globe.
Initially, Janssen collected armour, impressive for its complex structure of skillfully worked metal parts, tough leather, fine silk and intricate lacquer ware. He then expanded his collection to include helmets, some impressive sculptures and, of course, swords, which are widely regarded as the symbol of Bushido. The collection now comprises over 40 suits of armour, 200 helmets and 150 masks, as well as 160 swords and many items for decorating them.
Early on, Janssen also became interested in the Japanese martial art of karate. Through his training he earned the highest grade (1st dan). This training, through both its mental and physical elements, gave him an even greater understanding of the way of the warrior (Bushido). “That’s how I came to understand the Japanese sense of beauty and Japanese philosophy, the zen in art, the profundity and unobtrusiveness,” says Janssen.
Janssen has now lived in Berlin with his wife, Susanne, for almost fifty years. She and their two daughters share his joy in samurai art.