My husband and I have been quite the hermits since COVID, so it was a big deal for us to actually leave the house this past Friday and venture forth into downtown Atlanta to the High Museum of Art, my old stomping ground where I attended SCAD-Atlanta for grad school! The area has changed a lot, including the addition of the amazing SCAD Fashion museum and an expanded campus.
Our goal this trip was to visit the Samurai: Armor from the Collection of Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller being hosted by the High. When you first enter the exhibition space, you’re enveloped by the sound of a heartbeat as you survey a wall collaged with famous movie posters and screenshots inspired by samurai epics, including everything from Kill Bill to Kurosawa’s best.
Past this point, many armor sets are displayed in cases that allow you to fully circumvent them, a fact I appreciated as an artist who considers drawing armor a weak point. I especially wanted to study how armor works during this trip, but I left the exhibit with so much more inspiration than that!
My Favorite Pieces
Beyond the more traditional armor, the collection housed many impressive pieces with unique imagery, specifically Buddhist dieties and symbols, seashells, and even ‘human head’ caps. Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the collection:
This helm sports the wheel representing the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.
A most impressive display of fully armored group of horses and riders takes up a large stage in the exhibit. I can only imagine how horrifying and awe-inspiring they would be riding atop small ‘dragons’!
This piece caught my eye because of its striking color and unique shape. It’s described as being a cape made for a woman, as well as a fire fighter, the long treated cloth providing protection against flames. Fire was a major danger in Japanese fuedal cities due to the fact a large part of their construction was made of wood. I want to know more about these female fire fighters who protected the city from threats!
All in the Details
One thing this exhibit stressed was that Samurai armor emphasized not only function, but form and aesthetics. Even as the construction of later armor was simplified for quick dressing, the craftsmen always made sure it was beautiful and impressive. I had to feature some of the close-up shots of the details in the metalwork and lacquered leather.
(Notice this armor has butterfly-shaped hinges to match its butterfly mon (sigil), which was the symbol of the clan being represented by this armor.)
(I especially appreciated the naturalistic motifs and stylization here. I can see how Art Nouveau borrowed from Japanese motifs looking at this!)
Yasuke, the Black Samurai
This exhibit also included a fascinating sub-exhibit dedicated to Yasuke, an African samurai who served Nobunaga, (for those who aren’t already familiar) that’s worth a look. The museum hired local artist, Brandon Sadler, to tell the story of Yasuke’s life through four Japanese brush style wall scrolls and they are very inspiring!
History, Worldbuilding, & Inspiration
I hope as an artist that I’ll be able to absorb something of how and why this armor operates in our world for my own worldbuilding and storytelling efforts, as many of my own stories take place in a low tech era of warfare. Some observations I made as I absorbed this exhibit:
- The artistry of making these armor sets represented vigilance, grace, dedication, and skillfulness on behalf of both artisan and wearer, putting an emphasis on discipline and status.
- Visual motifs from the observed world include bamboo leaves, religious iconography, local gods and spirits, sea shells, and even smoking pipes popularized by Europeans who brought tobacco into Japan. I imagine these motifs were chosen based on each warrior’s local symbolism, which usually shows up in the mon (family crest) too.
- Construction elements include metal (specifically iron), silk (layered into strands and used for ties), and lacquered leather. Swords had manta-ray skin for the grips, materials all plentiful in Japan’s island climes.
- Evolution of construction evolved over time based on what the armor needed to defend against. The layers were silk and layered leather or metal at first to defend against swords and arrows and protect horseback riders (needed to be light to be quick and also longer blades to reach opponents), but as time progressed, larger strips were used in chest armor to defend against matchlock weapons. Hinges were also added to make the armor easier to get in and out of. However, none of these pieces lost their attention to detail and pageantry during that evolution.
- The world is interconnected. Some of the armor was inspired by European soldiers featuring paneled construction like European helmets or big noses that mocked Europeans as “demons”. Other sets were made by Korean artisans who brought their own silhouettes and techniques into Japanese armor-making during political exchanges where the armor was brought as gifts during a time of diplomacy between the two countries who have had rough history (IE. Japanese occupiation of Korea).
Full Reference Album
There are too many beautiful things to include in one blog post, so definitely check out the full album on imgur to see the rest of the pics I took and the High’s page on the exhibition, which includes additional information and history about the exhibit’s signature pieces. I photographed with texture, construction, etc in mind for my reference as an artist.
All the photos in the world can’t do this exhibit justice, however. These pieces are a sight to behold with so much detail to take in and I encourage you to go visit them in-person, if you can! This exhibit will be at the High Museum until September 17th.
There were also lots of wonderful Japanese reference books, comics, and souvenirs featured in the gift shop. I left with a couple of small souvenirs for myself, including a magnet, which I always get for any exhibit we attend. A butterfly-themed pin seemed appropriate after marveling at the buttefly-themed armor set I particularly enjoyed! We also purchased the #4 print in the Yasuke set for our personal collection, as he is an inspiring figure for my husband, Kevin.
I hope to explore more exhibits like this as long as we’re in the vicinity of so many wonderful museums! Seeing this beautiful artistry in an amazing collection filled me with such awe I hope to channel into aspects of my own work. I hope you all are inspired as well!