The East-Asian Art Collection presents a sweeping overview of the art of China, Japan, and Korea, each displayed in their own galleries and a study collection. Among the museum’s highlights are the collection of Japanese painting and East-Asian lacquerware, assembled over decades by the art dealer and collector Klaus Friedrich Naumann – who was born in Berlin and who lives in Tokyo – and the Berlin Yuegutang Collection, featuring Chinese ceramics from the Neolithic period all the way up the 15th century.
Archaeological and craft objects, painting and calligraphy from China and Japan, and ceramics from Korea are on show in the individual galleries. A central exhibition room is dedicated to Buddhist art common to all three cultures. On display in this room are sculptures made of stone, metal, and wood, cult objects and religious sculptures.
Chinese archaeology is represented in several important ancient bronzes, early ceramics, and artworks made of jade. Characteristic examples of porcelain and lacquerware are also on show. Of particular cultural and historical significance is a small porcelain goblet from China, dating from the first-quarter of the 17th century. The goblet once belonged in the Kunstkammer, or ‘cabinet of art’ of the electors of Brandenburg and was displayed centuries ago in the former palace. The most stunning display of great craftsmanship in the area of lacquer art is a lavish imperial throne, with matching screen (third-quarter of the 17th century). This masterpiece of rosewood, mother-of-pearl inlays in a lacquer and gold ground, commands a room of its own.
The by far most famous art forms in East Asia – the art of painting and calligraphy – are executed on supports made of organic material such as paper. The result being, such works are highly sensitive to light and hence presented in thematic, temporary exhibitions alternating at regular intervals. Works from Imperial China and the 20th century are presented in individual exhibition rooms. Large folding screens create an eye-catching display on one side of the galleries of Japanese painting and calligraphy. The museum’s important collection of prints, consisting predominantly of Japanese woodcuts, is also exhibited in a constantly rotating series of exhibitions.
A tea-room built by Japanese carpenters regularly functions as a space for ‘tea sessions’. Such events provide a real-life enactment, depicting how the ceramics and lacquer objects on display in the next room were originally used. The exquisite Klaus F. Naumann Collection is housed in an adjacent gallery entirely dedicated to it.
In 1906, Wilhelm von Bode, then director general of the Royal Museums (or Königliche Museen zu Berlin, forerunner of today’s Staatliche Museen), paved the way for the founding of the East-Asian art collection as the very first collection of its kind in Germany. By the time of the Second World War a few decades later, the collection had come to rank as one of the best in the world, as a result of an excellent and shrewd acquisitions policy and numerous private donations.
In October 1924 the first permanent exhibition rooms opened in the Museum in der Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (now known as the Gropius Bau). The chaotic and catastrophic events of 1945 marked the end of an illustrious period in the collection’s history. Ninety per cent of the works were taken to the Soviet Union as looted art and have been retained ever since at the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The collection was quite literally decimated. So far, only some 300 objects from the original collection have returned since their removal to external safe-storage sites during the war.
After the war, East-Asian art was shown in two separate museums: in the Pergamonmuseum on the Museumsinsel, then in East Berlin (from 1952 onwards), and at the newly constructed museum in Dahlem in West Berlin (from 1970 onwards). The two collections were united in the Dahlem Museums in 1992. Plans are afoot for the Museum für Asiatische Kunst to relocate to a brand-new site in the very heart of Berlin: the Humboldt Forum, a cultural complex due for construction in the near future at Schlossplatz, directly opposite the Museumsinsel Berlin.