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Collecting Asian Art in Prague: Cultural Politics and Transcontinental Networks in 20th-Century Central Europe

18 May 2021

Collecting Asian Art in Prague: Cultural Politics and Transcontinental Networks
in 20th-Century Central Europe
Organised by the Collection of Asian Art at the National Gallery Prague
and the Austrian Science Fund’s (FWF) research project
“Patterns of Transregional Trails” (P29536-G26)
Conference date: 17–18 June 2021
Location: National Gallery Prague, Salm Palace at Hradčanské Square1

Symposium Convenors
Markéta Hánová, Director of the Collection of Asian Art, National Gallery Prague
Yuka Kadoi, Project Leader, Institute of Art History, University of Vienna and
Austrian Science Fund (FWF).
Zdenka Klimtová, Curator of the Collection of Asian Art, National Gallery Prague
Simone Wille, Project Leader, Institute of Art History, University of Innsbruck and
Austrian Science Fund (FWF)


This conference looks at collections of Asian art in and outside Prague from the
perspective of the national cultural politics interconnected with individual
encounters as well as institutional cultural and diplomatic exchange in Central
Europe during the 20th century. The focus will lie on collections of Asian art –
hereby used as an umbrella term for East Asian, South-East Asian, South Asian,
Central Asian and West Asian art. The location includes Prague and its
neighbouring cultural centres in Central Europe, thereby allowing a comparison of
the mechanisms of collecting and presentation across time and place in the 20th
and 21st centuries.
Rather than viewing the collection as connected to a deterministic account of
cultural flows through centers and peripheries, the conference will focus on
international and transcontinental networks. It will look closely at the role these
networks played in establishing the grounds for collecting, displaying and narrating
Asian art in Central European museums, which were used as platforms for cultural
diplomacy or propaganda. By revisiting historical entanglements and relational
comparisons that connect Asia and Central Europe, the conference’s framework
will focus on exhibitions, diplomatic exchange, and discursive aspects on art from
Asia in the context of cultural politics.
In the event of ongoing travel/event restrictions related to COVID-19, the conference will be held as a hybrid gathering, offering onsite and virtual access. Links to the video streaming service will be provided later.


Day 1
Welcome & Introduction by Alicja Knast, Director General, National Gallery Prague
10:30–11:00 Panel 1: Entangled Histories of Cultural Politics
Moderator: Simone Wille
Markéta Hánová, National Gallery Prague
The Birth of the Asian Art Collection at the National Gallery in Prague and
Cultural Politics in the Twentieth Century
A new-born Department of Oriental Art at the National Gallery in Prague (NGP),
officially established by a decree of the Ministry of Education, Science and Arts on
16 November 1951, came under the programme of the centralisation of private
property enforced by the new communist Czech government. Nonetheless, its
conception would not have arisen without the interest in Asian art promoted by
cultural politics and private collectors in the interwar period. During the era of the
First Czechoslovak Republic (1918–1938), owing to the direction of international
trade and cultural politics, the countries of the Far East were also coming to the
forefront of interest. Lubor Hájek (1921–2000) arrived on the stage in 1952 as the
first head of the new collection of Asian art at the NGP. He managed to bring
together Asian artworks housed at the NGP and other state collections, such as the
Oriental Institute, since the interwar period under the umbrella of the new
department. Moreover, he saved the past heritage of mostly private collections
after the communist confiscation. His effort was highlighted by the first
permanent exposition of Chinese art at the chateau in Benešov nad Ploučnicí in
Northern Bohemia which opened in spring 1961. In spite of heavy damage to the
old Asian art collection caused by the fire at the chateau in 1969, the collection is
celebrating its 70th anniversary.
11:00–11:30 Break
11:30–12:30 Panel 2 In Active Dialogue with Asia
Moderator: Markéta Hánová
Yuka Kadoi, Institute of Art History, University of Vienna, Austrian Science Fund
The Ideals of the East: Asian Art and the Crisis of Visual Expression across the
Globe, ca. 1900

“The Ideals of the East: with Special Reference to the Art of Japan”, written by
the Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo (Okakura Tenshin, 1863–1913), is often
considered a milestone in his intellectual life. Published on the eve of the RussoJapanese War and written in English, “The Ideals of the East” made a significant impact not only on the Euro-American world but also on British colonies in Asia. While “The Ideals of the East” tends to be analysed from a perspective of Pan-Asianism in the late 19th and early 20th century, I would like to look afresh at this study as the crisis point in representation across the globe.
Tomáš Winter, Institute of Art History, Czech Academy of Sciences
Picasso’s Meeting with Buddha
In 1913, the Group of Fine Artists organized its third exhibition in Prague. It had a
very special conception. Instead of works made by members of the Group the
paintings exhibited were from “French” Cubists (Pablo Picasso, George Braque,
André Derain) together with Czech folk art and Asian and African art. These
artworks were lent from private collectors, and mostly came from Prague. I would
like to explain the reason for such a strange mix of various works in the broader
context of the appropriation, collecting, exhibiting and manipulation of Asian Art
around 1913.
12:30–14:00 Lunch Break
14:00–15:00 Panel 3 Cultural Geographic Re-Orientation – Part 1
Moderator: Yuka Kadoi
Johannes Wieninger, former curator of the Asia collection, MAK – Museum of
Applied Arts
Collecting – Searching – Showing
Asian Art in Central Europe. Competing and Networking during the 20th

Over the course of the economic “opening” of Japan, numerous collections of East
Asian art, applied arts and ethnographic objects were created in Europe. The
collectors were technicians and economists, traders and adventurers who created
a network across Europe that still lives on today through their gifts to public
museums. After the First World War, museums and universities in search of art
turned their gaze to China, and a multiple race began: on the one hand,
collections of Chinese art were brought together through purchase opportunities, on the other hand, museums all over Europe competed to carry out archaeological
research, especially in China – and bring the corresponding objects home. Visible
only after a long period of consolidation new networks emerged. Beginning in the
early 1970s international exhibitions brought the collections back together. The
exhibition Weltkulturen und moderne Kunst (World Cultures and Modern Art) on
the occasion of the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 is of particular importance as
a network builder.
Uta Rahman Steinert, Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Big Gifts to Keep Friendship Warm
In 1959, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the GDR and the People’s
Republic of China, the Chinese government donated 251 arts and crafts objects to
the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) which were to
complement the exhibitions of the Ostasiatische Sammlung (East Asian Collection),
newly founded in 1952. The unusual donation came about on the basis of an
agreement between the ministries of culture of the two countries. Accompanied
by a small catalogue and celebrated as a testimony to the friendly relations and a
contribution to a better understanding of China’s history and culture, the state gift
was promptly exhibited at the Pergamon Museum. But where did the pieces come
from, who had selected them and according to what criteria? These questions have
not been satisfactorily answered to this day. The paper aims to shed more light on
the circumstances of the donation and how this important acquisition was
integrated into the exhibition concepts of the newly founded museum. In doing so,
the conditions on the German side will be examined first, which is, however, just a
first step towards researching the donation.
15:00–15:30 Break
15:30–17:00 Panel 4 Cultural Geographic Re-Orientation – Part 2
Moderator: Michaela Pejčochová
Petra Kuhlmann-Hodick, Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden
Cultural Politics and Transcontinental Networks in 20th-Century Central Europe
The SKD’s exhibition project Madonna meets Mao in 2008, which included a number of contemporary positions of Chinese art, took place with intensive political participation. Whereas this cooperation did not lead to new input for the collection of the Kupferstich-Kabinett, a number of Japanese contemporary works have been collected from 1960 to today. From the beginning of the 20th century onwards the focus was more on Japan. The art of the Japanese woodcut was considered a main impulse in the pursuit of a reduction in pictorial means in modern European graphic art. In Dresden this alignment was mainly initiated by
the director general of the royal collections, Woldemar von Seidlitz. Despite the consulting expertise from Japan, the heads of the collections limited themselves to getting in touch with the country more indirectly. From the early to mid-20th century, the collection itself as well as the exhibition projects were rarely concerned with Chinese or Indian art – although these were the basis of the Dresden Asian collection put together under Augustus the Strong in the early 18th century. It was only recently – over the last 30 years or so – that this part of the
collection gained more interest – e.g., in the latest research project by Cordula Bischoff and Anita Xiaoming Wang on the Cabinet’s early Chinese and Chinoiserie Collection, which will – hopefully – be presented in an exhibition in Dresden by November this year.
Dagmar Pospíšilová, National Museum – Náprstek Museum, Prague
Collecting after the Second World War. New Trends in the Museum Collecting
Strategy under the Influence of Political Changes in Post-War Czechoslovakia
Collecting after the Second World War was deeply influenced by many
circumstances, first of all by the results of the war. The Beneš Decrees gave the
museum the opportunity to obtain artistic items left in flats by Germans who fled
in May 1945. Secondly, new trends in collecting, namely after the year 1948 when
the communists came to power, were influenced by the political support of the
national independence movements in Asian countries. These initiatives were
accompanied by a new cultural politics and exchange programmes including field
and study work by artists, researchers and students. Most of these individuals and
also diplomats and traders collected various items of arts and crafts. Often the
items were given or sold to the Náprstek Museum; gifts from various Asian
countries were also received. Thirdly, we can also see certain developments in
attitudes to the collections nationalised after the year 1948. Many items very given
to the museum as deposits but were transferred to museum ownership only after
the Cultural Committee was cancelled in the 1960s. Fourth, another trend in
collecting was connected with the state policy of specifying the mission of local
museums to present only local history and culture while the rest of the collections,
including non-European arts and crafts, were to be transferred to other museums
specialized in these kinds of collections, namely to the Náprstek Museum. All these
trends completely changed the character of the Náprstek Museum collections in
both quantity and quality.
Agnieszka Kluczewska-Wójcik, Vice-President, Polish Institute of World Art
Studies Warsaw
“I Have Shown You Japan…” Feliks Jasieński and Japanese Art Collections in

The first ever exhibition of Japanese art in Poland opened on the 14th of February
1901 at the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. Feliks Jasieński,
author of Manghha. Les promenades à travers l`art, le monde et les idées (Paris
1901) and writer at the Chimera Review presented his Paris-born collection to a
shocked public. The exhibition and its accompanying fiery debate in the press,
which prompted the collector to relocate to Kraków, was a typical example of
succès du scandale: provocation meant to bring the public’s attention to a new
artistic phenomenon which would have otherwise had no chance of existing in the
mind of an average spectator. Jasieński’s private museum, opened in 1903 at his
Kraków apartment, became the epicentre of Polish Japanism and gathered a
circle of amateurs of Japanese art. Further collections were created in the wake
of this new interest, yet none matched the size or importance of the over
thousand objects within Jasieński’s own, which he donated to the National Museum in Kraków in 1920. A renaissance of interest in Japanese art in Poland came only with the end of the 20th century and was once again related to Jasieński. 1994 saw the opening of the Manggha Centre (now Museum) of Art and Technology in Kraków where his collection was deposited.
Day 2
10:00–11:00 Panel 5 Cultural Diplomacy and Propaganda, Private and
Institutional Collecting
Moderator: Markéta Hánová
Michaela Pejčochová, National Gallery Prague
Emissary from the Far East: Vojtěch Chytil and his Significance for the Building
of the Collections of Asian Art in Central Europe

The paper will introduce the career and activities of the painter, teacher and
collector Vojtěch Chytil (1896–1936) and his exhibitions of Asian art in the Central
European region. As a teacher of Western painting at the Beijing Fine Arts College
in the Republican Period, Chytil had a unique opportunity to acquire artworks by
famous as well as lesser known modern Chinese painters. He can be credited with
introducing to Europe a number of masters of Chinese modern ink painting and his
collection of Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese artworks was among the most
extensive of his time. The talk will highlight significant objects from Chytil’s
collection and show their importance to the development of Asian art collections
in our region.
Beatrix Mecsi, Art Historian, Associate Professor, ELTE Institute of East Asian
How Did an Ancient Tomb from North Korea Appear in Hungary?
The Anak 3 Tomb’s Mural Copies in Context

In the collection of the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Asian Art (Budapest), there is a
group of life size copies of the wall paintings of the Anak 3 tomb from
Goguryeo, commissioned by a Hungarian diplomat in North Korea in the 1950s
from contemporary North Korean painters. These copies are almost exact replicas of the original murals, attempting to represent even the damage to the wall, and realistic enough that in 2004 an exhibition was able to create a simulation of the tomb within the museum walls, as convincing as if the visitor had entered the tomb itself. Why were such paintings made? What was their role and function? How did they end up in a far-away country like Hungary? These are the questions the paper attempts to answer, discussing the intellectual background history, and placing the phenomenon in its context.
11:00–11:30 Break
11:30–12:30 Panel 6 Modernism Between Solidarities, Friendships and
Intellectual Exchanges
Moderator: Simone Wille
Zdenka Klimtová, National Gallery Prague
Lubor Hájek and Indian Modernist Art
This year the National Gallery Prague’s Asian Art Collection is celebrating two
anniversaries: 70 years have passed since it was first established and it is 100 years
since the birth of its founder, Lubor Hájek, who headed the collection from 1951
to 1986. He is best known for his work in the field of Chinese and Japanese art,
and his findings remain valid and continue to be cited to this day. This paper,
however, focuses on Hajek’s activities associated with contemporary Indian art
from the 1950s to the 1980s, specifically within the context of the international
and cultural relations that existed between India and what was then
Czechoslovakia. Lubor Hájek played an important role in organising these contacts
and he can be credited with – amongst other things – starting the National Gallery
Prague’s collection of Indian Modernist art, which includes works by individuals
such as M. F. Husain, Bhattacharya Chittaprasad, Ram Kumar, Ajit Chakravarti, and
V. S. Gaitonde.
Sanjukta Sunderason, Assistant Professor, Art History, University of Amsterdam
Freedoms in Motion: Transits of Modern Indian Artists in Central Europe in the
In this paper I will reflect on an initial set of ideas from the archives of artists from
developing nations travelling to Central and Eastern Europe during the critical
decades of decolonization and Cold War in the 1950s–1970s. My focus will be on
the Indian artist Bhabesh Sanyal – who, along with many others during these years – travelled extensively to Central and Eastern Europe, and countries within the Socialist Bloc. Artists like Sanyal are examples of a new genre of artists from the newly independent countries in Asia/Africa, who were becoming artist pedagogues, and artist-bureaucrats, and as such travelled as part of diplomatic missions, and government funding bodies/commissions. Such artists were represented not only at the new biennales of the South, but also nation-state driven transits of artists and artworks. My work on Sanyal is part of a larger project on three such artist/pedagogues/bureaucrats, the other two being Shakir Ali in
Lahore, Pakistan, and Zainul Abedin in Dhaka, East Pakistan (Bangladesh after liberation war of 1971). All three artists travelled to countries in the Socialist Bloc as well as across the United States and Western Europe, and engaged with aesthetic pedagogies within the contexts of the places they travelled to. This reflected their own critical location in South Asia, where they were institution builders. The uniqueness connecting them is also that each of them migrated to their new contexts (Sanyal, from Lahore to Delhi; Abedin from Calcutta to Dhaka; and Ali from Prague to Lahore) through the late-1940s, triggered by partition and new geopolitical shifts in the region along the path of the retreating British colonial empire. By exploring Sanyal’s journeys – in the 1950s to eastern Europe – I will try to unpack the mutual understanding between the regions that are reflected via artists in transit. A critical question to explore will be: how did an artist/pedagogue/bureaucrat like Sanyal understand the question of “freedom”? And how did his journeys in socialist Europe shape his understanding of artistic modernity as a postcolonial artist?
12:30–14:00 Lunch Break
14:00–15:00 Panel 7 Trans-Modernist Routes Beyond Western Europe
Moderator: Dagmar Pospíšilová
Simone Wille, Art Historian, University of Innsbruck, Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
M. F. Husain’s Drawings in the Collection of the National Gallery Prague.
Artistic Form beyond National Representation.

M. F. Husain (1915–2011) is considered to be one of India’s most important
modernist artists. As such, he gave form to Indian postcolonial modernist art with
a commitment to the nation paired with an international and cosmopolitan
agenda. He thus travelled extensively throughout his life showing his works in
countries around the world. In 1952 he travelled to China as a delegate to the 1952
World Peace Congress in Beijing, in 1953 he visited Egypt and in 1955 he travelled8
to Czechoslovakia, showing his work in Prague. Further trips to Prague along with
exhibitions of his works followed. His journey through the Czech lands is
documented in an artist’s book made of twenty-three original drawings in 1976.
These drawings are with the National Gallery Prague and they document his
interaction with several people and places from a transcultural perspective.
Together with an earlier set of drawings that he made in Prague in 1956 and 1957
and the film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities, directed by the artist in 2004, in
which Prague is featured as one of three cities, these works are discussed in
connection with post-war artistic mobility and the artist’s very personal
connection with Central Europe.
Jan Wollner, Academy of Art, Architecture and Design, Prague
Central European Artists in Baghdad
Abstract watercolours by Sergio Núñez do not fit into any national art historical
narrative. They were painted in Iraq in the early 1960s by the Czechoslovak artist
of Chilean origin who was sent to Baghdad to teach at Tahreer College. They
represent just one example of many artworks made in Iraq (and other Asian
countries as well) by Central European artists who travelled there for various
reasons – as members of official delegations, as tourists, or as teachers like Núñez.
Speaking of “collecting Asian art”, what is missing in such collections is also worth
mentioning. The artworks made by Núñez and other Central European artists in
Iraq remained in most cases in private archives and the stories of their creators are
remembered just by their children as exotic chapters of family histories. I will try
to examine the methodological conditions under which we could transfer the
aforementioned artworks from private archives to public collections, from private
family histories to the narratives of global art history.
15:00–15:30 Break
15:30–16:30 Panel 8 Asian Art in Central Europe: Past, Present and Future
Moderator: Yuka Kadoi
Matthew Rampley, ERC Principal Investigator, Continuity / Rupture: Art and
Architecture in Central Europe 1918–1939, Masaryk University in Brno
Asian Art, Czech Museums and the Manifesto of Decolonization
In September 2020 a group of young scholars published the Manifesto of
Decolonization (MANIFEST DEKOLONIZACE, It was a
mistake, they claimed, to assume that Central Europe was not touched by the
wider postcolonial critique of art and culture; Austria-Hungary and, after it,
Czechoslovakia, may not have had colonies in Africa, Asia or the Pacific region, but
the Czech lands are still located in the heart of Europe and many Czechs still
entertain a colonial imagination. One of the prominent areas where postcolonial
criticisms have been mounted has been that of museum collecting. The museums
of Europe (and North America) are packed with artefacts that were obtained under
conditions ranging from colonial plunder to commercial exploitation. To what
extent are such criticisms relevant to institutions in the Czech lands? Given that institutions such as the Moravian Gallery in Brno as well as the Náprstek Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts in Prague have substantial collections of Asian art, what sort of questions need to be asked about their histories and the means by which objects from outside of Europe ended up in their collections? What is the meaning of the Manifesto of Decolonization for museums in Brno, Prague and elsewhere in the Czech Republic?
Partha Mitter, Professor Emeritus, University of Sussex
Decolonising Modernism
The talk takes colonisation in a broader sense: even though a few regions such as
India were formally colonised, western modernism exerted its cultural hegemony
around the globe, creating an asymmetrical relationship between the centre and
the periphery; the metropolis created the “originary” avant-garde discourse, and
regions outside the centre suffer from the problem of derivativeness and time-lag.
Within the global colonial order, Asia, Africa and Latin America were represented
as being on the margins. Though less evident, there were margins within the
centre as exemplified by Eastern and Central Europe. The talk will consider ways
of decentring this unbalanced global situation by taking the case study of Indian
16:30–17:00 Conclusion

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