Arts and Culture
Using the collection of the Norwegian General Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe [1864-1935] housed in Bergen, Norway, as a point of departure, this paper will explore the various ways in which Buddhist sculpture came to the West and its transformation from sacred icon to aesthetic object in the late 19th and early 20th century. The sculpted works that form the core of Munthe’s collection are noteworthy for the discussion carried on by scholars over the course of the 20th century focusing solely on their place within a Western art historical trajectory, a discussion that privileged aesthetic value over ritual use. In keeping with Clunas’ theory of “co-production” of knowledge, it is clear that Munthe and those who worked with these sculptures over the years understood the inherent value of the works as sacred objects, but chose instead to focus on their aesthetic properties. In doing so, they brought to bear their own Western system of valuing the sculpted form, disregarding the lack of any Chinese precedent. The earliest of Chinese museums likewise stayed true to their own understanding of what art was – ancient bronzes, epigraphy, calligraphy, and painting - even after exposure to Western museum ideologies of collecting and cataloguing the world. Over time both would come to value the opposite perspective; this paper will conclude with a discussion of this global shift with the subsequent elevation of Buddhist sculpture to art form and its inclusion within modern museum constructs within China in the latter part of the 20th century.