THE ART COLLECTOR AND GENERAL FROM NORWAY
A large part of KODE’s collection of Chinese art is a gift from the Norwegian Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864–1935). He lived in China from 1886 to 1935 and was first employed in the Chinese customs service, to later become a general in the Chinese army.
Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe was born in Bergen in 1864. At the age of 20 he received two years of training at the Military School for non-commissioned cavalry officers, and from there he travelled to China, where in 1887 he was employed by the Chinese customs service. Not all of the information regarding Munthe’s undertakings in China is well documented. For that reason we do not have a complete overview of his assignments and tasks. It is assumed that he attained his position in the customs service via his relative Iver Munthe Daae, who lived in China from 1867 to 1888. Among other things Daae was director of customs in Taiwan. Munthe had several positions in the Chinese customs service, which at that time was dominated by Western powers.
In 1894 Munthe enrolled voluntarily to fight in the war between Japan and China and became acquainted with Yuan Shikai, who was Governor General in Shantung. During the next five years Munthe reorganised the Chinese cavalry under the command of Yuan Shikai, and in 1900 he joined the international troops during the Boxer Rebellion. There is evidence indicating that he worked as interpreter and guide for the Russian forces, and that his efforts were rewarded with a Russian military medal and the Cross of St. George. In 1901 he became a Major General and adjunct to Yuan Shikai, and remained in his service as chief of security for the foreign legations until Yuan died in 1916. It is unclear what position Munthe held after this. Evidence indicates that he kept his position as advisor and chief of security police up until his death in Beijing in 1935. He was also buried here.
After living in China for a few years, Munthe developed a great interest in Chinese art and in time acquired a considerable collection. In 1907 Munthe decided to give his steadily growing collection to his good friend in Bergen, Johan Bøgh, who was the director of Vestlandske Kunstindustrimuseum.
“Dear Director Bøgh, I am just now completing the final packing and hope to have the cases sent off before 1 December. The collection has grown larger than originally planned. First and foremost I wish to make it as representative as possible.” Thus began General Munthe’s 6th letter to the director of Vestlandske Kunstindustrimuseums dated 9 November 1909. By then the general had already shipped numerous cases containing Chinese artefacts to the museum.
Munthe was a sympathetic and fervent collector and his donations to the museum are copious, representative and unique in a Scandinavian context. It includes a total of 2550 artefacts and arrived in cases at Vestlandske Kunstindustrimuseum from 1907 and right up until his death in 1935. The painting collection consists of 780 works, including 270 album prints, books and painted fans and sunshades. The number is high for a European collection of Chinese painting. Attempts were made to sell the sculpture collection and parts of the painting collection to the USA during the 1920s. The efforts were unsuccessful.
Gillmann, Derek: “General Munthe`s Chinese Buddhist Sculpture: An Embarrassment of Riches?” In: The Buddhist forum, London 1992.
Huitfeldt, Johanne: The Munthe Collection, Huitfeldt forlag, Oslo 1996.
Lansky, Karen and J. Keith Wilson: “Los Angeles before LACMA: Chinese Art at the Old County Museum”. In: Orientations, No. 2, Hong Kong 2000.
Thowsen, Monica P.: “The Munthe collection of Chinese Art in Norway”. In: Oriental Art, 1994.
Wright, Amanda S.: “A little knowledge is a Dangerous thing”: Gertrude Bass Warner, General Normann Munthe, and the enigma of the UOMA Buddha, University of Oregon, USA; Master of Arts Thesis, 2002.