A Unique Collection With a Thousand-Year History

The State Museum of Oriental Art

The State Museum of Oriental Art is one of the largest museums in Russia, boasting a collection of about 150 thousand items. The oldest exhibits are three to four thousand years old, while the “youngest” serve as examples of contemporary art.

The collection’s geographical scope is enormously broad: the Museum preserves monuments of art and culture of the countries of the Far and Middle East, South, South-East and Central Asia, North and Sub-­Saharan Africa, Soviet Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia, the peoples of Crimea, Buryatia, and Tuva, as well as small indigenous peoples of North Asia, Russian Manchuria, and Chukotka.

The Museum was founded in 1918 with the intention that it would become a center of oriental arts, which had acquired particular urgency after October 1917, when large private collections were rapidly nationalized. Many objects from such collections ended up in Ars Asiatica, as the Museum was called initially.

In the first decade, the Museum had no permanent address. During different time periods, its holdings and exhibition halls took up small areas in the buildings of the State Historical Museum on Red Square (1919–1923), Vkhutemas on Rozhdestvenka Street (1923–1926), and the tiny Tsvetkovskaya Gallery on Kropotkinskaya Embankment (1926–1929). In 1929, it got its first permanent premises, the former building of the Church of Elijah the Prophet on Vorontsovo Pole Street. Until recently, the main part of the collection as well as restoration workshops were situated there. In 2018–2019, the depository and workshops were moved to VDNKh, where the establishment of a large museum cluster is currently under way. 

In the 1920s, thanks to transfers from the State Museum Fund, as well as state purchases from private individuals, the Museum’s collection was enriched with a variety of exhibits from China and Japan, Iran and Afghanistan, India and Turkey, as well as the Caucasus and Central Asia. Konstantin Nekrasov, the nephew of the famous Russian poet, Pyotr Shchukin, the collector and patron of arts, and Vladimir Tardov, the diplomat and orientalist, were among the first collectors whose findings from art markets in Iran and antique salons in Paris formed the basis of the Museum’s holdings. 

The items were also transferred from the collections of the Moscow English Club, the Rumyantsev Museum, the Kremlin Armory, the State Historical Museum, Stroganov Moscow State Academy of Arts and Industry, antique stores, second-hand bookshops in Moscow, the Oranienbaum Palace, and the Hermitage.

The large archeological collections of ceramic items from Central Asia transferred from the Museum of Fine Arts and the Samarkand Museum played a special role in replenishing the museum holdings of that time. 

In the early years, archeological expeditions became a new field of the Museum’s activities. The evidence from the excavations of 1926–1928 in Old Termez, conducted by the second Director of the Museum Boris Denike has an outstanding scientific and artistic significance. In the 1960s, the museum resumed its research there, and the work on the territory of the Buddhist cave monastery Kara Tepe took thirty years to complete. Since 1981, the museum archaeologists have fruitfully worked in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, in Adygeya and Abkhazia, in Chukotka and the Volga region, as well as in foreign expeditions in Mongolia and Yemen. 

The first carpets, embroideries, pottery, and metal tableware of the 18th -early 20th centuries from Central Asia and the Caucasus that were acquired by the Museum laid the foundation for field research and collection work of the department of the Soviet East. Procurement expeditions to Central Asia, Kazakhstan, and Transcaucasia took place between the summer of 1929 and the late 1980s, and gradually their scope expanded to cover the autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, Buryatia, Tuva, Altai, Russian Manchuria, Chukotka, Taymyr. In the last three years, a similar expedition has been conducted abroad, in West Africa (Republic of Mali, Burkina Faso).

The Museum was the first to organize exhibitions from Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Ceylon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Chad, Nigeria, and other countries in Russia. At the end of many exhibitions, some of the items are donated to the Museum, which gives a start to new collections and replenishes existing funds.

A new building on Suvorovsky Boulevard (now Nikitsky Boulevard) gave rise to a fruitful continuation of the museum’s exhibition activities. The history of the Lunin’s House can be traced back to the early 18th century, and in 1802 the site was purchased by Lieutenant General Pyotr Lunin (uncle of the famous Decembrist Michael Lunin). The prominent architect Domenico Gilardi masterminded the manor’s reconstruction, which gave it an empire gloss. In 1821, the main house, which was still unfinished, was handed over to the Commercial Bank, which stayed there until 1917. The first exhibition of the Museum was held in this building in 1984, and in 1988, permanent expositions started to appear.

In 1985, the North Caucasus branch of the Museum was established in Maykop. Its employees annually organize numerous exhibitions of artists, graphic artists, sculptors, specialists in decorative art from different regions of the North Caucasus and South Russia, form their own collections, and give series of lectures.

In the branch of the Museum at VDNKh there are two new large-scale exhibition projects: the expositions “Preserving Culture. The Roerichs’ Museum at VDNKh” and “The Exposition from the Funds of the Museum at VDNKh.” In 1991, the museum became a cultural heritage site in Russia.

The museum funds contain paintings, drawings, sculptures, decorative and folk art objects, unique ancient and medieval sculptures, including the Buddhist ones, classical and modern paintings and engravings, Varnish works, textile and jewelry, wood and bone carvings, miniature sculptures, weapons, and various household items. There are also such indisputable masterpieces as ivory rhytons from Old Nisa, gold and silver items from the mounds of the aul of Ulyap in Adygea, a collection of Luristan bronzes, miniatures of the Babur-nameh manuscript, a collection of Qajar paintings, and the famous Chinese porcelain. The Pipe by Niko Pirosmani, paintings by Martiros Saryan, Alexander Nikolaev (Usto Mumin), and Alexander Volkov as well as sculptures by Damir Ruzybaev are recognized as masterpieces of the museum’s collection as well.

The magnificent gems of the Museum’s Japanese collection are the sculpture depicting the Bodhisattva Fugen (late 12th century), a two-leaf screen “Monkeys Reaching for the Reflection of the Moon in the Water” painted in the late 17th century by Kano Toshune, the ensemble of an eagle on a pine tree and a screen, created as a gift for the coronation of Nicholas II in the late 19th century by the sculptor Kaneda Kenjiro and weavers from the Nishijin silk fabric. Fascinating works of small statuary (Netsuke pendants and okimono figures), ceramics for tea ceremony, weapons, textiles art (kimono and belts), and ukiyo-­e prints complement the collection, revealing different facets of Japanese art.

The Museum participates in major exhibition projects both in Russia and abroad, and its collections have become the subject of scientific research. Lately, one of the most significant projects was a large-scale exhibition “The East: Different Beauty” devoted to the 100th anniversary of the Museum. It was dedicated to women and their role in the traditional culture, as well as to the understanding of female beauty in general. The exhibition provided an opportunity to delve into the history and culture of different states and learn about the understanding of beauty through the prism of national context in Central Asia, Islamic countries, Caucasus, China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. In total, the exhibit featured more than 600 items: painting and graphic works, costumes and jewelry, decorative and applied art. 

The exhibition “From the Blue Rose to the Golden Grenade. The Image of the East in Russian Art of the First Half of the 20th Century” held in 2018 was timed to coincide with the centenary of the Museum’s foundation. It opened a real treasury for the visitors, as the exhibition included over a hundred works of the most prominent Russian artists, who devoted their lives to the East: symbolists, avant-gardists, as well as plein air and realist artists. Along with recognized, although rarely exhibited masterpieces by Martiros Saryan, Alexander Volkov, Robert Falk, Ilya Mashkov, some excellent but almost unknown works by Alexander Nikolaev (Usto Mumin), Mikhail Kurzin, Pavel Benkov, Olga Sokolova, and other artists fascinated by the East were presented. The exposition was based on the collection of the State Museum of Oriental Art, which was complemented with the paintings from the State Tretyakov Gallery, Saratov State Art Museum named after Kurzin, and Mardjani Foundation for the Support and Development of Research and Cultural Programs.

The Museum staff regularly organizes regional and international conferences, catalogs the collections, and issues monographs. The Museum conducts several research and archaeological expeditions, and its educational projects, children’s clubs and studios, concerts, and film screenings are loved by visitors and friends of the Museum of all ages.

Natalia Borisova, Press office of the State Museum of Oriental Art