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Man and Horse Armor, German c.1510, photo by permission of the Art Institute of Chicago.

getaway-chicago logo The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires disintegrated in the wake of World War One (1914-1918). The British Empire and the French Republic were broke, and economic-social conditions worldwide were in disarray. Americans of means, such as George Harding and William Randolph Hearst, availed themselves of this situation and purchased armor at bargain basement prices from noble estates. aic35285Possibly motivated by the intrinsic aesthetic content of Medieval and Renaissance armor, boyhood memories of novels by Sir Walter Scott, plain curiosity or a desire to relive the past in their castle-like homes, men like Harding and Hearst collected the stuff by the truckload.

Much of the Hearst Collection is dispersed, but the Harding Collection in its entirety is at the Art Institute of Chicago. Acquired from the Harding estate in the early 1980s and formerly installed in Gunsaulus Hall, a select number of pieces are now on display in the Galleries 235 and 236. At some future date the entire collection will be reassembled, but the pieces already on display are encompassing and exquisite. Among the A.I.C.’s many mind boggling works of art, its armor is a must see.

aic35006Neil’s MFA thesis was Medieval Armour and Its Relationship to Welded Steel Sculpture, so investigating the Harding collection was essentially a no brainer. for him. For Alan, it was terra incognito, but he got into it after initial bafflement. While Neil was grooving on a mounted combatant in Maximilian armor (possibly Innsbruck, Austria, c. 1510-20), Alan was fascinated by a Pikeman’s Half Armor (1625-30)aic35004 from Greenwich, England. About a footman’s Half Armor (1600) made in Milan, Italy, the Getaway Guys were of different opinions. Alan thought it was gaudy and Neil thought it elegant.

The armor era was short lived. Between c. 1470 and c. 1600, workshops in England, France, Austria, Italy and Spain produced field, jousting and parade armor in abundance. Field and jousting pieces were essentially utilitarian, while parade pieces were fancy and useless in battle and jousting, but all of it was militaristic in concept.

aic35003

As a kid making New York department store rounds (Macy’s, Gimbel’s and Wanamaker’s), Neil and his mother discovered that Gimbel’s had elements of the Hearst collection for sale. So Neil thought all department stores had armor for sale. Why a department store and not an auction house, nobody seems to remember.

Conceived for protection or self-aggrandizement, armor is now recognized as an art form. Its finely wrought steel in intricate patterns conforming to the human body, and its ability to mimic human flexibility is remarkable, and despite its practical function (whether field, jousting or parade), armorers subconsciously fabricated movable works of sculpture. Numerous misconceptions remain about the demise of armor. With the exception of jousting armor, it was not heavy and cumbersome. It was surprisingly lightweight and flexible, however it was expensive. And despite its light weight, the stuff was tough enough to withstand cross bow bolts and early firearms.aic35005 Its costliness and the development of more powerful firearms did it in.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago possess the best armor collections this side of the Atlantic. Is it art? Along with ancient to modern jewelry, couture fashions and indigenous textiles, armor is art to be worn regardless of its initial purpose. In addition to armor's sculptural content, its etched, guilded, or painted surfaces are further evidence of artistic endeavor.

Accompanied by curator Martha Wolff and collection manager Jane Neet, the Getaway Guys had a blast. January 2012

Text photographs courtesy of the Art Institue of Chicago. 1: Field Armor, Germany, 1510-70; 2: Field and Tourney Armor, Germany, 1560-1570; 3: Pikeman Half Armor, England, 1625-30; 4: Half Armor, Italy, c. 1600; 5: Field Armor, Germany, c. 1560.

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