As a young man, Johan Munthe (1864-1933) was born in Bergen. He received a military education at the Cavalry Cadet School (Kavaleriets underoffiserskole) in Trondheim. In 1886, he emigrated to China during a period of upheaval and rebellion. He also collected what has become one of Europe’s largest collections of Chinese art. Learn more about the Norwegian China-man.
Senior consultant at the Bergen Museum Kode, Jorunn Haakestad, who is the editor of the book “Porcelain and Revolution”, says that the general, adventurer and art collector Johan Munthe is a fascinating man.
Munthe first started working with the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. He enlisted in the Chinese Army during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). He mastered the Mandarin Chinese language and remained as a cavalry instructor under General Yuan Shikai.
Donated 2,500 objects to Bergen
After the fall of the empire, he became an adviser to the Chinese Ministry of War during the early years of the republic. At the same time, he was building up a massive collection of art objects, most of which he eventually donated to the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art in his birth-town Bergen.
For almost 25 years, Haakestad has been responsible for the art collection, which counts over 4,500 East Asian objects, 2,500 of which were donated to the museum by Munthe, who’s association with Yuan Shikai proved advantageous. He advanced in rank to lieutenant General and Chief of Legation Quarters Beijing. He was also an advisor to the Ministry of War, the first and only foreigner to achieve such a position. He gained good access to arts and crafts.
The Chinese Collection
Today, the museum and Munthe’s magnificent bequest – the Chinese collection – are part of KODE Art Museums and Composer Homes. Munthe’s collection includes porcelain, paintings, costumes, and statues in bronze and marble.
In the book “Porcelain and Revolution”, Jorunn Haakestad introduces us to the life of this fascinating man. Drawing on new sources, she adds further dimensions to Munthe’s story, presenting him not just as a soldier and art collector, but also as a bank director, amateur poet, and religious contemplative. Thus, she brings us closer to answering the enigma of who Johan W.N. Munthe really was.
In 1919, he married German-born Alexandra Ethelred von Herder (1867-1920 ). She was the widow of Frederick William Grantham (1870–1915) and was the mother of Sir Alexander Grantham (1899–1978) who was Governor of Hong Kong from 1947 to 1957.
Throughout his life, Munthe sent boxes of Chinese art home to Bergen. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon also holds a large number of works collected by Munthe, later acquired by the Museum’s founder, Gertrude Bass Warner (1863-1951).
Jorunn Haakestad (born 1950) is an art historian with a PhD from the University of Bergen. From 1997 to 2007 she was director of the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art. Since the museum became part of KODE – Art Museums and Composer Homes, she has been principal conservator, with responsibility for the China collection.
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There are many stories about the China collection, some disturbing. Which objects are
originals and which are copies? How did he get all the art? Was it legal? “I am exploring this”, says Haakestad about the book.
Jorunn Haakestad has contributed essays to many exhibition catalogues and specialist journals, and has edited several books on arts and crafts.
The Norwegian China-Man, written by Tor Kjolberg
All images © KODE, Bergen