The First Bequests of Asian Art

In the first years of its existence, the State Museum of Art received a significant number of bequests from Latvians living in the Far East, China and Japan about 120 items of craftwork and paintings in total. This provided an opportunity for introducing visitors to the Asian culture and art.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a variety of social and political circumstances in the Russian Empire led to people moving to the heart of Russia and the Far East. Firstly, these were job opportunities (the construction of China’s Eastern Railway, 1896), and secondly – military operations (the Russian Japanese War, 1904–1905), World War I (1914–1918), the October Revolution (1917), and the civil war which followed (1918–1922), when men were conscripted into the army, and thousands of residents were forced to abandon their homes and become refugees. Some of them ended up in Siberia, the Far East, Vladivostok and China. 

The situation changed in 1918 with the proclamation of the Latvian nation. People followed events in their homeland closely, wanting to return home and to get involved in them. This period was well described by Roberts Valdmanis, the first representative of the Latvian Provisional Government and Honorary Consul in Shanghai (1919 – 1920): “The work which we have achieved here, as a small contribution to the matter of Latvia’s independence, was our humble duty to our dear homeland, for which we, former citizens of Russia of a different nationality, have now also become free citizens of the Republic of Latvia”1. 


Roberts Valdmanis (1874–1932) and his wife Anna Valdmane (1875–1955) participated actively in all of the most important Latvian community activities in the Far East and China and became involved in organizing the Latvian Society to assist refugees. R. Valdmanis was one of the initiators for the creation of the Latvian Riflemen’s Imanta Regiment in Vladivostok in 1918, while Anna Valdmane created the Women's Committee in Shanghai and organized a bazaar. The income from bazaar was handed over to the riflemen regiments. In 1920, civilians also headed to Latvia together with the riflemen from ports in Vladivostok and Japan. This was one of the few opportunities available for returning to Latvia. The Valdmanis family also returned to Latvia in 1920 and handed the State Museum of Art one of its first bequests – thirty items of craft from China and Japan. They also delivered a bequest of four Chinese works of art to the museum from Ernests Strēlnieks, a Ventspils seafarer, and a collector of, and expert on Chinese art who was living in Shanghai. In 1914, E. Strēlnieks, who had been living in China for more than 20 years, published a catalogue of his collection Chinese Pictorial Art, which was highly acclaimed by his contemporaries and friends, connoisseurs of Chinese art. The catalogue, with the notation: “A gift to the Latvian State National Museum from the author. Shanghai, China, 3rd January 1920. J. E. Strēlnieks” was despatched to Latvia by the author. It was registered as No.1 at the SMA Library. The fact that the notation was made at a time when the State Museum of Art had not yet been founded is interesting. E. Strēlnieks was also active in the Shanghai Latvian Society, bequeathing works of art from his collection for an auction which was organized by Anna Valdmane in 1919 in support of the riflemen’s regiments.  


Jānis Andrejs Ozoliņš (from 1927, Jānis Andrejs Burtnieks; 1894–1959), who bequeathed items of Japanese craft and an album of reproductions of the works of famous Japanese artists to the museum in 1921, was undoubtedly an interesting personality. He studied philosophy at the University of California in the USA and moved to Japan in 1917, and worked as the Latvian Provisional Government’s diplomatic and consular agent in Kobe, Japan (1919–1921). Ozoliņš published a brochure about Latvia in the Japanese and English languages, placed articles in Japanese press publications about Latvia and tried to facilitate trading links. He worked as a lecturer in aesthetics and English literature at Kwansei Gakuin University. He returned to Latvia in the summer of 1921, working as a lecturer and writing poetry and plays. He wrote about Japanese art, literature, poetry and the aesthetics of poetry in the 1920s and 1930s in Latvian periodicals.


In 1928, Pēteris Zālītis, who was the President of the Shanghai Latvian Society, bequeathed three items to the museum, while Vilis Uzeliņš presented 32 items of Chinese decorative art in 1935. Finland’s Consulate-General in Shanghai, which represented the Latvian state’s interests in China at that time, was involved in dispatching the gift to Latvia. The Deputy Consul-General sent a message to Hamburg: “Latvian citizen Vilis Uzeliņš entrusted the items as listed below, which are meant for the Latvian State Museum in Riga, to the care of Willi Jacobi (doctor’s assistant) on the Fulda, a German motor ship. The items have not been packaged and have been placed in the hospital as belonging to the ship's inventory to avoid misunderstandings with customs in Germany. By this, I kindly request that you do not refrain from receiving these items from the ship, packaging them and dispatching them to the Latvian State Museum in Rīga”2.


Overall, the gifts received, such as everyday and decorative items, deity figurines, which were made from metal, stone, wood, glass, enamel, clay and porcelain, reflect the diverse skills and worldview of Chinese and Japanese craftsmen. Individual items were made in the late 19th century, but the majority are articles were from the early 20th century. The two Chinese paintings bequeathed by E. Strēlnieks and one of the famous 87 cm high Guanyin figures, made in Dehua in China, should be mentioned as being the most important. 


These bequests, together with items taken over from the State Property Repository in 1920, like the Chinese and Japanese porcelain articles and furniture, the Japanese ivory sword given to the museum in 1923 and the small bequests from private individuals in the 1930s, were the foundation for the subsequent creation of a separate Oriental Art Departament.


1 Fišere, Ilze. Latvieši Ķīnā. Avots. 1990, No 4, 61. p.

2 LVA, 1659. f., 1. apr., 42. l., 34. lpp.