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The Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung acquires a valuable Coromandel lacquer screen for the Museum für Asiatische Kunst

01.03.2018
Kunstgewerbemuseum

The Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung has purchased a twelve-leaf Coromandel lacquer folding screen of impressive quality and size for the Museum für Asiatische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Created in the late 17th century, the screen depicts a pair of phoenixes, surrounded by birds and flowers, skilfully carved into the lacquer and coloured. Until its destruction in 1945, a nearly identical folding screen was integrated into the panelling of the Chinese Lacquer Room in the Berlin Palace, which has recently been reconstructed to house the new Humboldt Forum and non-European collections of the Staatliche Museen. The newly purchased screen can be viewed until 30 April 2019 in the Baroque room of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, in the European Chinoiserie display of the special exhibition ‘Vis à vis. Asia meets Europe’. After the opening of the Humboldt Forum the screen will be placed on permanent exhibition in the gallery presenting ‘Literati Art of China’.

‘We owe the highest gratitude to the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung’, said Michael Eissenhauer, director-general of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. ‘This valuable loan definitively enriches the future display by the Museum für Asiatische Kunst at the Humboldt Forum.’ Martin Hoernes, secretary-general of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, added: ‘It was a great pleasure for us to be able to acquire a unique work of art for this particular place. The legacy of the entrepreneur and arts patron Ernst von Siemens and the support of the Siemens AG made this decisive purchase possible.’ In a statement, Klaas Ruitenbeek, director of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, explained: ‘Up until now, we have had no such masterpiece of lacquer art among our holdings. We thank the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung for making it possible to welcome this highly desirable object into our collection.’

Coromandel lacquer folding screens bear tribute to the art of Chinese lacquerware, and reached their peak in popularity and style in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the Coromandel lacquer technique a layer several millimetres thick of chalk mixed with clay is applied to wooden panels, then covered again with a thin layer of black lacquer. The images are then carved into the chalk through the layer of lacquer. The carved areas of the light base layer, framed by narrow bands or larger areas of the black lacquer surface, are then filled with coloured lacquer and partially gilded. These screens were often given as gifts in China, particularly for birthdays or in conjunction with the granting of official titles.

The newly purchased screen, which measures 272 x 569 cm, depicts a garden with rocks, trees, flowers, and birds, framed by a border of antiquities of the sort traditionally collected by Chinese literati. The literati garden encapsulates the Chinese intellectual and economic upper class’s entire philosophy of life and nature. The screen, purchased by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung from a French private collection, captivates the viewer with its rich imagery and colours as well as its excellent state of preservation. The provenance, independently researched in a specially commissioned report, reveals that the screen most likely made its way to Buenos Aires in the late 19th or early 20th century, and from there came to Europe in the 1980s.

This acquisition takes on particular significance in the context of the history of the reconstructed palace. Coromandel lacquer screens were used as panelling in the lacquer chamber of the palace before it was significantly destroyed during the Second World War. One of these was almost identical to the newly acquired folding screen, and exemplifies the early Asian collections of the Berlin museums. These trace their origins to the palace Kunstkammer and the Chinese Lacquer Room. Other objects from this collection, some of which were acquired before 1700, now belong to the collections of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst and the Ethnologisches Museum, and will be on display again in the Humboldt Forum beginning in 2019.