Museum collections are living things, ones which grow and evolve and which are sometimes damaged or destroyed by human greed and pride, yet which are still alive.
The collections of the National Museum in Krakow have had their ups and downs, and their fate has not always been decided by conscious policies implemented by their curators, museum specialists or custodians.
The first Japanese item was presented as a gift to the NMK collections as early as 1892. Since that time, the Museum has expanded its collections thanks to donations and purchases.
In June 2018, the collection was enriched by the addition of 81 woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e genre, so-called pictures from the floating world, as well as an album of images of the famed Shinto shrine Toshogu Taisha in Nikko.
This gift is highly significant for the NMK, made more exceptional by the fact that the items all come from the private collection of Dr Jens Wiebel, a German doctor whose family has owned the pieces for three generations.
The grandfather of the donor of the collection, Dr H. W. Hoeck, was a lawyer who acquired these treasures of the woodcut art in 1922, following his own tastes and sensibilities. The collection was subsequently moved to Germany, where it was enjoyed on a daily basis. The collection was displayed in Dr Wiebel’s family home, where the pieces were hung in darkened areas, avoiding direct sunlight. The family demonstrated concern for the well-being and preservation of the pieces even at this stage. Thanks to this concern, and to the family’s practice of rotating the works in the collection, even today the woodcuts retain their bright colours, providing a testimony to the outstanding skill of the artisans who created them. During World War II, the pieces were carefully stored in an attic, miraculously avoiding damage.
And it is these very woodblock prints which Dr Wiebel has decided to donate to the National Museum in Krakow. The role of two exceptional people in this must be stressed, without whose initiative and commitment this unprecedented event could never have taken place – the art historian Dr Ewa Kamińska (Jagiellonian University) and the trusted family friend of the Wiebels, the custodian of the collection, John Helmbock.
All of the works are from the Edo and Meiji periods, from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. It is worth pointing out that this addition to the NMK collection syncs well with the vision of collector Feliks Jasieński; that is, further pieces have been acquired which allow several different prints of the same illustration to be enjoyed. We can admire the same scene in different colour variations and saturations. We can also compare prints made with reworked blocks.
The collection includes several series of works by Utagawa Hiroshige, including the well-known Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido and Famous Views of the Eastern Capital, as well as many prints from the outstanding series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, authored by Katsushika Hokusai.
Apart from series of prints displaying the landscapes of Japan, there are also individual works by recognised masters, such as Suzuki Harunobu, known as the father of the full-colour print technique, and Kitagawa Utamaro, who famously portrayed beautiful women.
The very high technical quality of these works has allowed for a return to traditions which were interrupted when the collection was transferred from the Art of the Far East Department of the NMK to deposit at the Manggha Museum, limiting the direct access of NMK researchers to the collection. The donor’s wish that the works should serve an educational purpose matches the permanent mission of the NMK to make collections publicly available and conduct educational activities, including those involving original graphic works. We are preparing for a return to study sessions with students, art lovers, and specialists in Japanese culture who will be able to study the exceptional techniques of the Japanese woodblock print close up.
Despite the fact that the general condition of the woodblock prints and their colours is understood to be very good, they will still have to undergo essential conservation works at the Paper Conservation Workshop of the NMK.
Together with Dr Ewa Kamińska and John Helmbock, we are developing an international project, part of which will consist of items from the regained donation. A donation which the donor recalls as part of his childhood, which he admired along with siblings and cousins while sitting on the stairs next to the walls on which the Japanese woodblock prints hung.
Beata Romanowicz – curator of the Department of Far Eastern Art of the NMK