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HE Feng

Heidelberg University (Heidelberg)
Institute of East Asian Art History

Thesis Topic

Provenance and Monumentality: Chinese Porcelain and Dresden Curators in German Antiquarianism

This dissertation explores the correlation between provenance and monumentality in German antiquarianism, and focuses on the Chinese monumental vases (chinesische Monumentalvasen) in the Dresden Porcelain Collection, where three generations of museum professionals conceptually transformed traditional Chinese art into German national heritage. Among the vases, the dissertation features the Dragoon Vases (Dragonervasen) as the key objects. Made in circa 1690, each of the blue-and-white vases measures more than one meter in height and about 50 kilograms in weight. As the largest porcelain objects by the early eighteenth century worldwide, their extraordinary materiality reflected the artisanal excellence of the Jingdezhen potters, forming the material basis of their monumental affordance. As potters shaped the vases, provenance shaped monumentality. The dissertation argues that the antiquarian excavation of an eighteenth-century provenance by the nineteenth-century curators was the driving agency for monumentalizing Chinese porcelain in Dresden collective memory, thereby advancing the antiquarian studies of Chinese ceramics into a modern academic field. The emerging recognition of a legendary provenance generated a regional discourse on transcultural artifacts. Within this discourse, the curatorial interpretation of provenance framed public and disciplinary conception of monumentality over a long duration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Provenance and monumentality, as interpreted and exhibited by the museum professionals, were essential for Chinese porcelain to be embedded in German collective cultural memory, and thereafter legally classified as nationally valuable cultural property (national wertvolles Kulturgut) formative for German cultural identity.

The curatorial agency of the historical actors was crucial for interpreting the monumentality of the vases. Yet, equally important was the monumental affordance of the Chinese artifacts, which presented its selectively recognizable properties to the historical actors. The monumental affordance of Chinese vases consists of their prominent provenance, transcultural identities, and extraordinary materiality. As an analytical concept, monumental affordance articulates the contextual understanding of monumentality, meanwhile specifies the agency of objects in accordance with the cognitive capacity and knowledge structure of the relevant museum professionals. Monumentality in German antiquarian context emerged as an implicit, fluid idea of the Göttingen school of historical studies in the early nineteenth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, scholars of the Vienna school of art history articulated the term as an explicit, disciplinary concept. Deeply involved in this disciplinary transformation from antiquarianism to curatorial art history, Dresden historiography of Chinese ceramics contributed to the theoretical discourse on monument and memory and to the general emergence of art history as a humanistic discipline in the German-speaking regions. Challenging the Berlin-centered German historiography of East Asian art, the dissertation further recognizes the neglected contribution of the Dresden museum professionals in the disciplinary paradigm of world art history (Weltkunstgeschichte) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Seven of the Dragoon Vases on display in the gallery of East Asian ceramics at the Zwinger Palace, Dresden. Porzellansammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Inv. Nos. PO 1014 / PO 2064 (lid), PO 1010, PO 1011, PO 1017, PO 9130, PO 9172, PO 9448 / PO 1013 (lid). Photograph by Feng He.