Sunday, September 15, 2013

Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Sirén’s Journey

The University of Hong Kong University Press has published an intimate study of the impact of Chinese art on the Swedish critic Osvald Sirén (1879-1966), one of the pioneers of Chinese art scholarship in the West. The book, Enchanted by Lohans: Osvald Sirén’s Journey into Chinese Art by Minna Törmä, features a number of photographs from his visit to China. (Lohans, Buddhist adepts, protectors of the teachings, were noted subjects in Chinese iconography.) 

Sirén made four voyages to East Asia: 1918, 1921–1923, 1929–1930 and 1935. He spent most of his time during these travels in China and Japan, but he visited Korea as well. In general, the period from ca. 1900–late 1930’s was an intense period of reseach and travel in China and many of the Western collections of Chinese art were formed at this time. It was also a time when archaeological excavations began in a systematic fashion in China. Sirén, among several other western scholars or dealers, was involved in this process. The growing market for ancient grave goods, especially, promoted widespread interest in China’s ancient arts and created new collectors.

Didrichsen Museum of Art and Culture, Helsinki: view of the China room with an exhibition case containing some objects which originally belonged to Sirén's personal collection (photo: Minna Törmä)

Dr. Törmä, author of a number of other studies on Sirén, is Lecturer/Tutor of Chinese Art at Christie’s Education (London) and Adjunct Professor of Art History at University of Helsinki.

She acknowledges that “Theosophy played such an important part of Sirén’s life,” although cautioning against generalizations. He became involved with the Swedish Section of Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical Society based in Point Loma, California, which claimed to carry on Blavatsky's work. “Sirén saw the role of Theosophy as practical; a Theosophist ought to bring instruction, support and comfort in people’s daily lives. This would partly be realized by transmitting knowledge about ancient beliefs to the West and about the religions and philosophies born in the East; the goal was also to teach everyone to find the source of knowledge inside themselves.” 

Dr. Törmä’s paper “In Search of Images of Religious Purity: Osvald Sirén and the Allure of Chinese Art” (delivered at the Enchanting Modernity: Theosophy and the Arts in the Making of Early Twentieth-Century Culture Conference at Liverpool Hope University in December 2010)  looked at the way theosophy played a role in Sirén’s professional and personal life.

He was internationally known historian of Italian painting and pioneering scholar of Chinese art in the West; he was institutionally placed in Stockholm, first as Professor of Art History in the University of Stockholm (1908–1923) and then as curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture in the Nationalmuseum (1926–1944). 

Theosophy played an important role in Sirén’s life, it was the basis of his world view, and he had published articles on various topics in Swedish journal Theosophia since 1900, then in 1912 appeared his first article in the English periodical The Theosophical Path, after he had visited Point Loma in California, the Theosophical Headquarters and Katherine Tingley (1847–1929), in 1911. 

Parliament of Peace Committe, Temple of Peace, Point Loma, California, 1923. 
Osvald Sirén stands fifth from the left. Katherine Tingley is seated at the center 
with Gottfried de Purucker, arms folded, standing behind her.

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