Vis à Vis: Asia Meets Europe

12.05.2017 to 30.04.2019
Kunstgewerbemuseum

The Museum für Asiatische Kunst closed its doors in Dahlem in early January 2017 to prepare for reinstallation in the Humboldt Forum. This provides an opportunity to display a selection of its collections interspersed with the permanent exhibitions at the Kunstgewerbemuseum. Works from both museums will be displayed in stages, placed in associative dialogue with each other within the framework of five thematic discourses providing insights into a transfer of materials, techniques, forms, and motifs that took place over the course of multiple centuries. The exhibitions will be installed and opened to the public successively beginning in November 2017, and are expected to be completed by April 2019.

Horn, Bone, and Ivory

The first discourse begins on 12 May 2017, and focuses 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. The curve of the tusk remains clearly recognizable, an apparently intentional effect that leaves no doubt as to the nature of the costly material, which was associated with rulers in both Asia and Europe. The scenes of animal battles, dominated by elephants, also reveal the royal connection, as does the primary figure of a lion, ingeniously carved in the round. Standing erect on a double lotus rosette, he exemplifies both a guardian figure and the ultimate synonym for sovereignty.

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, which depict a zebu, a lion, an elephant, a pair of ‘exotically’ clothed human figures, and the crowning figure of a woman holding a parasol, symbolise the African continent and reflect the exotic origins of the material, which was rare in Europe. The horns of exotic animals were thought to repel poison and heighten virility. Objects made of these materials frequently made their way into princely collections. 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.

Related content

Unknown artist, Portrait of Yang Maolin, ca. 1600. Hanging scroll (Detail) © Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
© Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Special exhibition by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin for the German-Chinese Cultural Programme 2017

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Matthäikirchplatz
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Vis à Vis. Asia Meets Europe
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