Report on the talk ‘Repositioning Gregorios Manos (1851-1928), founder of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, in the context of Japonisme’

Image: The Corfu Museum of Asian Art. © Corfu Museum of Asian Art

On Thursday 20 October, the Sainsbury Institute hosted a Third Thursday Lecture delivered by Despina Zernioti CMG, Director of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, titled “Repositioning Gregorios Manos (1851-1928), founder of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, in the context of Japonisme.” Opening remarks were made by the Research Director of the Sainsbury Institute, Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, who welcomed Despina, pointing at her incredible job as Director of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art. The speaker was further introduced by Dr Matsuba Ryoko, Lecturer in Japanese Digital Arts and Humanities at the Sainsbury Institute, who highlighted that Despina curated numerous exhibitions concerning Asian Art in Corfu and abroad, such as at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo and the Maison de la culture du Japon in Paris. Based on these experiences and her role as Director of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art – which is the only state museum in Greece exclusively dedicated to Asian art and antiquities – the speaker discussed the foundation of the museum in the early 20th century.

Despina began her talk by illustrating the basic historical facts related to the genesis of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art and in particular, the figure of its founder, Gregorios Manos (1851-1928). Born in Athens, Manos studied Law at Leipzig University, and from 1877 to 1910, he worked at the Greek Embassy in Vienna, reaching the position of Greek Ambassador in 1900. During his time in Austria, he developed an interest in Chinese, Japanese and Korean art, purchasing East Asian objects from various auction houses. Following his retirement, Manos moved to Paris, where he further committed to creating a comprehensive collection of Chinese and Japanese art objects and artefacts. By the end of his life, his collection comprised nearly 9,500 objects.

While discussing Japanese art, Despina showed that Manos’ collecting practices were in line with the main European trends, including Japonisme. Being a cultural phenomenon that influenced artists and collectors as well as the whole society’s view of Japanese culture outside of Japan, Japonisme is clearly reflected in Manos’ collection. More specifically, he was primarily interested in gathering all kinds of Japanese objects manufactured before Japan opened to the West in 1853, such as ceramics starting from the Jōmon period (c. 10,000–300 BCE), lacquerware, weapons and armours, musical instruments, netsuke, and Edo-period ukiyo-e, including very rare pieces such as a fan painted by Tōshūsai Sharaku (active 1794–1795). As Despina suggested, rather than just an East-Asian art collector, Manos aspired to be an art historian, considering that he also purchased numerous books about Japanese arts, which he meticulously annotated with comments.

In this regard, it is not a surprise that after declining an offer from the French government, in 1919, he decided to donate his collection to the Greek state in exchange for the chance to build a new museum, in which he could display the objects he acquired and share his knowledge of East-Asian cultures with a wider public. While initially planned to be in Athens, due to spatial limitations the museum would end up being located in the Palace of St. Michael and St. George in Corfu, following Manos’ original proposal. The former diplomat and his collection arrived in Corfu in 1824, opening as the Museum of Sino-Japanese Art in 1928. Unfortunately, Manos died just four months after the inauguration.

With a flashforward to the present day, Despina also illustrated how the museum developed from its opening, becoming the fifth most visited museum in Greece, and enjoying worldwide recognition. Moving from its previous Sino-Japanese focus, the museum now also includes South-East and Central Asian collections, thanks to later donations and acquisitions. As a result of these changes, the name has been revised to Corfu Museum of Asian Art, aiming to ultimately display cultural pluralism through the intercultural dialogue on Asian Art. To testify that this ambitious goal has been acknowledged by other institutions abroad, the Corfu Museum’s collection has been loaned and exhibited in Japan, France, and China during the last two decades.

After the lecture ended, a vibrant Q&A discussion began, moderated by Dr Matsuba Ryoko. Thanks to the questions from the audience, Despina had the chance to further elaborate on the type of visitors of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art, which is mostly Greek people, such as school students who participate in the museum’s educational program during the winter season. In conclusion, Despina’s lecture further confirms the importance of promoting research projects on Japanese collections held in museums outside of Japan to better understand how Japanese culture was represented in the past, and to enrich the way in which Japan is represented today all over the world.

Dr Massimiliano Papini has recently completed a doctoral degree at Northumbria University focused on the transcultural encounter between Japan and the North East of England during the late Victorian period.