Enchanted by Lohans

Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Sirén’s Journey into Chinese Art

Minna Törmä
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    Enchanted by Lohans
    Book Description:

    Finnish-Swedish art historian Osvald Sirén (1879–1966) was one of the pioneers of Chinese art scholarship in the West. This biography focuses on his four major voyages to East Asia: 1918, 1921–23, 1929–30 and 1935. This was a pivotal period in Chinese archaeology, art studies and formation of Western collections of Chinese art. Sirén gained international renown as a scholar of Italian art, particularly with his books on Leonardo da Vinci and Giotto. But when he was almost 40 years old, he was captivated by Chinese art (paintings of Lohans in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) to such an extent that he decided to start his career anew, in a way. He has left his mark in several fields in Chinese art studies: architecture, sculpture, painting and garden art. The study charts Sirén’s itineraries during his travels in Japan, Korea and China; it introduces the various people in those countries as well as in Europe and North America who defined the field in its early stages and were influential as collectors and dealers. It also explores the impact of theosophical ideas in his work.

    eISBN: 978-988-8180-98-1
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. 1 In the Forbidden City
    (pp. 1-8)

    At the heart of the present city of Beijing stands the former Imperial Palace, the Forbidden City, where the Son of Heaven resided and ruled the world from its golden throne for centuries. His country was called the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo 中國) and the palace was the center of that kingdom.

    On a hot early summer day in 1922, a 43-year-old man, rather short and thin and wearing glasses, entered the precincts of the palace compound, carrying with him photographic equipment. The era of imperial rule was over, as the country had been made a republic in the revolution of...

  7. 2 The Beginnings of the Journey
    (pp. 9-14)

    Sirén received his academic education at the Imperial Alexander University of Finland (presently the University of Helsinki) in his hometown of Helsinki. This was the only academic institution in the country, which at the time was the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland (1809–1917) in the Russian Empire and Helsinki was its capital. In addition to the university, the city could boast an art museum: Ateneum Art Museum had opened its doors in 1888 and made public the collection managed by the Finnish Art Society (established in 1846). The same building housed the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society....

  8. 3 Enchanted by Lohans in Boston
    (pp. 15-36)

    During my initial gathering of information on Sirén’s life, I recovered many tales and stories relating to the same event—the existence of multiple versions of the visit to the Forbidden City discussed in Chapter 1 was not an exception. My attempts to establish Sirén’s first contacts with Chinese art have been similarly confused by the differing stories people had heard; besides, Sirén’s own occasional reminiscences have not been precise. Like the game of Chinese Whispers, stories are transformed and may have been distorted to a degree by the subject, whether consciously or subconsciously. This is a caveat in biographical...

  9. 4 The Golden Pavilion
    (pp. 37-54)

    Sirén vividly described his sojourn in Japan during his first visit to East Asia in Den Gyllene Paviljongen: Minnen och Studier från Japan (The Golden Pavilion: Souvenirs and Studies from Japan, 1919). The book has a timeless quality, maybe because it is a mixture of tourist guide and art history—a familiar combination also found in contemporary tourist literature. It is entitled after the famous Kyoto temple of Kinkakuji 金閣寺, better known in English as The Golden Pavilion (Figure 8). His focus is on Japanese art and manners: the sections dealing with sculpture and architecture are more scholarly in character,...

  10. 5 The Expedition That Lasted Too Long
    (pp. 55-80)

    September 30, 1921: Sirén was on board the Taiyo Maru and was scribbling in his notebook in a raging storm. The ship had just passed the 180 degree longitude line, and he noted that stormy weather was rather common around there. The Pacific Ocean was not exactly as peaceful as its name suggests. Then he went on appreciatively about the weather:

    I rather like the stormy days, because they make the people be less noisy; keep them more in their cabins & prevent all fussing & dancing & courting on the decks. You are more allowed to enjoy nature undisturbed. How fine it...

  11. 6 The Fruits of the 1921–23 Expedition
    (pp. 81-96)

    When Sirén returned from East Asia in 1923, he spent some time in the United States on his way back to Europe. He gave two lectures on Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and met some of his old Boston acquaintances, such as Paul Sachs (1878–1965) of the Fogg Museum.¹ The latter part of 1923 was mostly spent in London, but by early 1924 he seems to have made Paris his base. His decision to settle outside Sweden was partly inspired by the fact that he had offered his collection of Chinese art to the...

  12. 7 To Go or Not to Go Back to Stockholm
    (pp. 97-108)

    While Sirén was in Paris and London preparing his publications or traveling elsewhere in Europe and North America, he was at the same time looking for a new position in a museum or a university. The first signs of this are found after he remarried in early October 1925. His wife Maria had moved to Point Loma to live with the children and had died in early 1925, so Sirén had been spending a fair amount of time on the West Coast himself. His second wife Rose Carbonel (1893–1978) was a translator, so presumably they had met in Paris...

  13. 8 Language Lessons and Curio Dealers
    (pp. 109-128)

    In December 1928 Sirén departed for East Asia via his usual route: over the Atlantic, across North America, and over the Pacific; he went first to Japan, and after a while he continued to Korea and then to China. In Japan, it was the early years of the Shôwa period (1926–89): the 1920s had been an intense period of appreciation of Western culture, and of interest in its materialism, individualism, and liberalism. This was to change, particularly after the economic crash on Wall Street in October 1929, when the mood would swing to the opposite direction with the military...

  14. 9 Enhancing the Asian Collection in the Nationalmuseum
    (pp. 129-144)

    In this letter from Beijing to his wife Rose, Sirén described the present atmosphere and the conditions in the Grand Hotel des Wagon-lits, where they had stayed together on their previous visit. There is a note of nostalgia in many of his comments written during this journey, which was his fourth in China. Great changes had taken place, and some of these were summed up by Sirén in an interview he gave to The Peiping Chronicle soon after his arrival in Beijing in March 1935.

    Since Sirén’s last sojourn, the treasures of the Palace Museum and History Museum had been...

  15. 10 The Garden as a Refuge
    (pp. 145-150)

    In May 1938 Sirén wrote to Jean Buhot that his garden was “becoming more and more a pet child” and that he was “endeavoring to bring it into harmony with Eastern ideals.”¹ He had plenty of material to draw from in designing a garden with ‘Eastern” inspiration. He had enthusiastically photographed Chinese and Japanese gardens during his four voyages, so he did not need to rely solely on his memories. Though a selection of these photographs had appeared in The Imperial Palaces of Peking and the fourth volume of A History of Early Chinese Art (dedicated to architecture), a vast...

  16. 11 Afterword
    (pp. 151-158)

    In the preceding chapters I have charted Sirén’s journey into Chinese art. Two points concerning his early career as an art historian should be revisited. The first is the role of Theosophy. One can detect many thoughts in Sirén’s writing which point in the direction of German Romanticism, but it is difficult to decipher how much of this comes directly from German Romantic writers and how much has been transmitted through the Theosophical filter. This is because Theosophy gathered from the same tradition as the art and literature of Romanticism. If we leaf through Sirén’s bibliography, we find titles, for...

  17. Appendix I: Biographies
    (pp. 159-168)
  18. Appendix II: Itineraries
    (pp. 169-172)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 173-206)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-216)
  21. Index
    (pp. 217-224)