The Museum für Asiatische Kunst closed its doors in Dahlem in early January 2017 to prepare for reinstallation in the Humboldt Forum. A selection of objects from its magnificent holdings will go on show over the coming months at the Kunstgewerbemuseum, interwoven into its permanent collection display. Works from both museums will thus be placed in associative dialogue with each other. This form of display illustrates the lively transfer of materials, techniques, forms, and motifs that already took place many centuries ago. Conceived as five ‘thematic discourses’, the display will go on view in successive stages, and will appear in its completed form December 2017 until spring 2019.
The kimono and its influence on Western fashion are at the heart of the new discourse, starting on 21 September 2017.
Kimonos had already arrived in Holland by the middle of the 17th century. Since 1623, the country had held a monopoly on trade with Japan. At once comfortable and luxurious, the kimono quickly achieved wide popularity throughout the Western world and became the wealthy gentleman’s preferred garment for wearing around the house, worn on top of a shirt and breeches. In order to meet the great demand, these garments were also crafted from locally produced textiles, as the banyan at the Kunstgewerbemuseum attests. Acquired in 2003 along with other objects from the Sammlung Kamer/Ruf, it is a full-length robe without any openings, made from bottle-green silk damask woven in England or the Netherlands around 1730/40. Its simple cut brings out the pattern of the silk fabric particularly effectively.
Though the banyan was reserved to men’s fashion in the 17th and 18th centuries, Paris haute couture discovered the aesthetics and culture of the kimono for women’s fashion after the opening of Japan to the West in 1853. By that time, the founder of Paris haute couture, Charles Frederick Worth, had already repeatedly sought inspiration in Japanese art and design.
Paul Poiret is widely credited with paving the way for modern women’s clothing and, thereby, the liberation of women from the corset. When he began his training in the salon of Jacques [LA1] Doucet in 1898, the development of the fashionable S-line – a style of corset producing an extreme deformation of the female body by simultaneously thrusting the chest forwards and pushing the buttocks backwards – had brought women’s fashion to a sartorial dead end. Poiret succeeded in finding a new way forward by replacing this ‘two part division’ of the female body with a straight, flowing line with a higher waist originating from the classicizing fashion of the Empire style. The waist-restricting corset thus slipped out of fashion. It was replaced with a tight ribbon around the hips. The 1912 afternoon dress on display takes up the high waist of Antiquity but combines it with inspiration drawn from the Japanese repertoire of colour and form.
As the Far Eastern counterpart to this afternoon dress, a women’s kimono from the Taishô era (1912–1926) from the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is also on show. It is a ‘kurotomesode’, a black, very formal kimono decorated using the Yuzen technique (a resist-dyeing technique). These black kimonos, with a brightly-coloured pattern on the lower part of the body’s front and side, are worn at the most formal of events, such as weddings even today. This formal character is underlined by five round family crests in the shoulder area of the garment. In delicate colours, the kimono is decorated with white herons and pink-tinged peonies before pine branches. These are traditional Japanese motifs, and their representation in pastel shades leads experts to date the garment to the Taishô era.
Since 15 July 2017 the discourse was devoted to ceramics: European porcelain and Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) stoneware will be presented alongside vessels from China, Japan and Korea.
Although the date and context of their origins are quite different, the ceramics exhibited do display design similarities. Parallels can for example be seen in the use of running glazes, the sculptural shaping of forms, the ennoblement of vessels through their placement on pedestals, and the depiction of motifs from nature. This is particularly evident in the juxtaposition of East Asian ceramics and those of the French ceramicist group Art du feu (Fire Art).
On the threshold between historicism and Art Nouveau, Western artists were searching for new sources of inspiration. Their encounter with East Asian art acted as an initial spark. Here, the Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum, founded in 1867, played an important role. In its early days it acquired both European and non-European works and saw itself as an exemplary collection.
However, the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, established in 1906 under the name Ostasiatische Kunstsammlung, took East Asian instead of Western concepts as a model when it built its collection. The Western reception of East Asian art known as Japonism is therefore scarcely reflected in the collection. Nevertheless, the selection of mainly Chinese ceramics from earlier periods still reveals those principles of design that inspired Art Nouveau artists. The oldest works date from the 4th century but appear timeless and modern today.
The first discourse began on 12 May 2017, and focused on objects made of horn, bone, and ivory. Artworks created in both Europe and on the Indian subcontinent between the 13th and 19th centuries will be juxtaposed in the Medieval Hall of the Kunstgewerbemuseum. The precious materials horn, bone, and ivory, valued for centuries for their firmness and elasticity, their surface lustre and pleasant feel, were commonly used to create luxurious objects and prestigious works of art. Ivory symbolised power, virility, grandeur, and purity across cultures. It was valued equally in both Europe and Asia for hunting and military equipment, for courtly gifts and cosmetic utensils, as well as for religious and devotional objects, and for rulers’ insignia. In the West, ivory was also associated with the exotic, giving an aura of exclusivity to the foreign material, which could only be acquired through extensive trade networks.
Two throne legs from Orissa (now Odisha, India) from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst exemplify the dramatic juxtaposition of Asian and European ivories. The iconography, which appears exotic to European eyes, and the technical finesse of the carvings illustrate the high calibre of this southeast Asian ivory work from a royal court.
A lidded goblet in the shape of a boat, made in southern Germany in the second half of the 17th century, was carved from zebu horn instead of ivory. The carvings symbolise the African continent and reflect the exotic origins of the material, which was rare in Europe. The example in the Kunstgewerbemuseum comes from the Kunstkammer of the Hohenzollern in the Berlin Palace, and reflects the Electorate of Brandenburg’s pursuit of colonial aspirations beginning around 1680.