In June 2022, a new intervention was introduced to the permanent exhibition of the Kunstgewerbemuseum. A small display between the Rococo and the Baroque sections features some 50 exhibits that were previously locked away in the museum’s storage facilities: finely chiselled bronze from the ancient Near East along with porcelain, glass snuff bottles and metallic objects from China.
In the years after its founding in 1867–68, the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) did not limit its scope to Europe, making concerted efforts to also collect non-European arts and crafts. The museum saw itself as an engine for innovation in contemporary design. In 1881, with the construction of a new building, the Kunstgewerbemuseum, the affiliated Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Decorative Arts) and its library were given an impressive new home (in today’s Martin-Gropius-Bau). The museum’s rich collections were positioned around the central atrium. On the ground floor, furniture was arranged according to stylistic periods, while on the upper floor, the presentation was organised by material. Here, the works in metal from the Near East and East Asian artefacts were also on display.
Over the course of the 20th century, the majority of the museum’s non-European objects were transferred to other branches of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, such as the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum) and the Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum for Islamic Art). However, a number of items have remained in the Kunstgewerbemuseum’s collection, a selection of which is featured in this exhibition.
Works in metal from the Near and Middle East were highly sought after from the Middle Ages onward. Often, they influenced the design of European work in the field, particularly in the trade hub of Venice. In the 19th century, Near Eastern craftspeople began producing objects especially for the European market.
In the 1870s, the Prussian envoy in Beijing, Max von Brandt (1835–1920), amassed his extensive collection of Chinese arts and crafts in Beijing, and sold it to the Prussian government, with the then-Director of the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin, Julius Lessing (1843–1908), acting as an intermediary. Jugendstil artists drew inspiration from the East Asian artefacts in Berlin, and in 1885, the French Art Nouveau designer Emile Gallé (1846–1904) travelled to Berlin to visit the Kunstgewerbemuseum in order to study the Chinese glassware in the Brandt Collection.
Sophie Eltzbacher (1845–1900), the wife of a wealthy banker, assembled an exquisite collection of Chinese export porcelain in Amsterdam, bequeathing the collection to the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin in her will. She was particularly interested in collecting porcelain with so-called ‘encre de Chine’ decorations, painted by Chinese artists copying European prints, which first began to be imported to the West in the 18th century by the various European East India Companies.
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