Nordic Private Collections of Chinese Objects (Series: The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700-1950)

Minna Törmä, 2020. London & New York : Routledge, 176 pp., 47 b/w illustrations., £96.00 (hardback) £29.59 (ebook). ISBN 9781138351806 (hardback) ISBN 9780429435041 (ebook)

 – Isobel MacDonald

In Nordic Private Collecting of Chinese Objects (published as part of The Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700-1950 series earlier this year) Minna Törmä raises the question “How do we recognise a collection in a photograph, if it is not stated that the owner is a collector?” (p. 2). This question pertains to the core of Törmä’s new study; an inquiry of when and why a collection of decorative objects is considered a collection. Törmä poses this question through four case studies of private Nordic collections of Chinese objects: Kustaa Hiekka, Sophus Black, Osvald Sirén and Marie-Louise and Gunnar Didrichsen. Her analysis focuses on the domestic spaces in which these objects were kept; shedding light on the interior lives of the collectors through the objects that they surrounded themselves with at home.

Törmä’s research is grounded in the use of black-and-white photographs of the collections at home, examples of which are richly reproduced throughout the book. Acting both as illustrations as well as visual documents in their own right, Törmä does not take the photographs at face value. Instead, she interrogates them, asking why they were taken and by whom. Many private collections are not accompanied by extensive archives and so, by using photographs, Törmä allows us to learn about these collections in more detail.

The narrative of the book oscillates between a strong contextual foundation of the collection history of Chinese objects by Nordic collectors and detailed descriptions of the objects and their settings; balancing the two successfully to reveal more about the individual collectors, and question traditional definitions of private collections. In doing so Törmä calls for the expansion of our understanding of private collections and collectors, thus allowing her book to speak beyond the specific context of Nordic collections of Chinese objects. Her arguments hold value to the history of private collections and domestic display more broadly.

The monograph begins by setting the case studies into wider theoretical and historical contexts. The author notes the importance of Diana Fuss’s The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them to her research. Törmä adapts Fuss’s argument – which is focused on writers – that interiors are both psychological and physical spaces; assessing how the collectors moved within their homes and how the objects shaped their domestic life. Törmä also provides a brief overview of how and when Chinese objects began to arrive in Nordic Countries and sets the scene for the trade between East Asia and Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway individually. Hers is not a comprehensive history of the collecting of Chinese objects in Nordic countries, however, it does build up an understanding of what was in Nordic collections and how and why they got there. Key to her chosen case studies was the change in collecting practices which occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when middle class professionals travelled to China and Japan for work. Indeed, all of the case studies had professional backgrounds (a jeweller, two businessmen and a scholar) and three of them either travelled or worked in China during their lifetimes.

The value of Törmä’s book lies in her argument that we need to pay more attention to domestic display and trends in interior decoration when discussing the history of private collections. Her analysis of the interior world of the private collector is focused around four collections, each of which were collected and displayed in different ways. The first, Kustaa Hiekka, falls into Susan Pearce’s mode of “souvenir” collecting; objects collected during his world tour in the early years of the twentieth-century. These pieces were displayed in a separate space within his home in Finland. Törmä highlights the duality of his interior spaces: those lived in were abundantly decorated in Victorian-style whilst in the “souvenir” collection rooms objects were displayed as a means of allowing Hiekka “armchair travel” (p. 37). The second, Sophus Black, is an example of an expatriate collector. Living in China for twenty-eight years, Sophus and his wife Minna, fully embraced Chinese culture; they lived in a traditional siheyuan(courtyard) house and Sophus was fluent in Chinese. It is Törmä’s discussion of expat interiors in the context of their Chinese counterparts within this chapter that is most enlightening to this reader. The third case study examines the Finnish scholar Osvald Sirén. Törmä notes how Sirén’s collecting of Chinese and Japanese objects and artworks can be read as material for his research, however, through her analysis of his rooms she suggests other, non-scholarly, motivations. As with Hiekka’s souvenir collection, Sirén’s objects acted to transport him out of Finland to worlds within his imagination. Törmä’s analysis is focused not only on the objects and furniture displayed but also Sirén’s manipulation of the space to create a more Chinese language throughout the interior. The final case study looks at the couple Marie-Louise and Gunnar Didrichsen who lived in a modernist home. Their Chinese collection was displayed in a specific room and Törmä provides an enlightening discussion of the mode of their display within a modernist context. Unlike the other three case studies the reasons behind why the Didrichsen’s began to collect Chinese material is unclear. In fact, Törmä interviewed Gunnar in 1990 who noted that he could not recall the details of the beginning of the Chinese collection after so long a time.

Whilst Törmä’s analysis of each collector is individually rich, there are themes that run across all four. All of the collectors also collected objects beyond Chinese material and the book assesses the Chinese collections within the context of the collectors’ other interests. These collections held examples of both fine and decorative arts and Törmä’s discussion moves freely between the two. Throughout the book Törmä draws on relevant comparative collections as a means of setting her case studies firmly into their context. Her focus is on what the objects at home can tell us about their collector rather than a categorisation of a collection by the type of objects held within it. As she successfully highlights in her conclusion; the four case studies highlight the various meanings and functions that objects within the interior hold, emphasising the connection private collectors have with the objects they choose to surround themselves with. Törmä also discusses the lives of the collections after the death of the collectors, parts of which can be found in Nordic collections (including some of Sirén’s objects collected by the Didrichsens). A particularly insightful examination of the Hiekka and Didrichsen homes, both of which survive as museums, allows Törmä to move between private and public realms.

Perhaps an area which might have been expanded upon is the indication of the relationship between Eastern and Western collecting modes. Törmä brings snippets of an Eastern perspective; whether it be a technical description of the Chinese manner of framing paintings (p. 94) or a discussion of Chinese versus Western customs with regards to the collection of ancestor portraits (p. 74). These descriptions are particularly rich and this reader would have liked more of them throughout the text. However, this does not detract from the overall quality of Törmä’s study. Hers is a concentration on Chinese objects and whilst Törmä does discuss the collection history and influences of Chinese and Japanese material on Nordic collectors, she differentiates between the two cultures. The detailed descriptions of Chinese furniture, painting and artefacts demonstrates her knowledge of Chinese material culture and collecting history, both subjects on which she has taught and published widely.

The present study taught this reader not only more about Nordic collecting practices in relation to Chinese material but also convinced them of the need to see private collections displayed within the home as more fluid than traditional definitions might suggest. The book offers a new perspective on Nordic collections in a transnational context of the collecting of Chinese art and material culture in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As such, it speaks to scholars of Nordic or Chinese collecting histories as well as, more broadly, any scholars of collecting, museums and design interested in private collections and the interiors in which they are kept.

One thought on “Review: Nordic Private Collections of Chinese Objects

  1. Es un estudio realmente fascinante, al usar las fotografias para documentar además de establecer la ausencia y presencia de los objetos. Interesante la vinculacion cultural China y Nórdica a través de los objetos artísticos, los coleccionistas y sus colecciones.

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