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Kümmel, Otto

    Full Name: Kümmel, Otto

    Other Names:

    • Otto Kümmel

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 22 August 1874

    Date Died: 08 February 1952

    Place Born: Blankenese, Hamburg, Germany

    Place Died: Mainz, Rhineland Palatinate, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany


    Director of the Berlin State Museums during the Third Reich; Asianist. Kümmel came from a large family; his father, Werner Kümmel, was the director of city planning in the Altona section of Hamburg. Kümmel’s mother died of cancer when he was still small and his father shortly before his entering college at Freiburg in 1893. He studied archeology and philosophy, authoring a paper on the ancient Greek vase painter Brygos. Between 1896 and 1897 he attended classes at Bonn and the Sorbonne in Paris. While in Paris, he studied Hayashi offered at the Ecole des Langues Orientales. He mastered Japanese. Kümmel served a year in the military stationed in Lahr. He received his PhD in 1901 at Freiburg writting a thesis on Egyptian plant designs. The following year he joined the Hamburg Museum of Arts and Crafts (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe) as a volunteer under Justus Brinckmann. In 1904 he moved to Berlin to the East Asia department of the Berlin Ethnological Museum (Völkerkundemuseum) under the distinguished Orientalist Friedrich W. K. Müller (1863-1930) and then, in 1905 at Freiburg. The following year, Wilhelm Bode hired him to be the first director of the new Department of East Asian Art at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, part of the Berlin Museum structure Bode oversaw. He lived at the home of the collector Marie Toberentz Meyer (1833-1915) where he secured the property from burglars. Kümmel bought widely for the department, acquiring the inventory of Hayashi Tadamasa (1853-1906), an important early dealer of Japanese objects in the West. In 1911 he published Handbuch Das Kunstgewerbe in Japan (Manual of Arts in Japan). He contributed biographies for the Thieme-Becker biographical dictionary (Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler) on Japanese artists. Together with William Cohn (1880-1961) he founded Ostasiatische Zeitschrift, the first Western journal for East Asian art. He organized a major exhibition of East Asian art in Berlin the same year. Kümmel secured significant donations from Meyer and Gustav Jacoby (1856-1921). In 1912 he assisted in the Stockholm exhibition for Chinese art of the “Society of Friends of East Asian Art in Amsterdam.” The magazine was published continually through World War I. He authored the Die Kunst Ostasiens in 1921 in the post-war hardships prevented a separate Asian museum from opening until 1923 when Kümmel oversaw its opening on Prinz Albrecht Strasse in Berlin. Another exhibition, this time of Chinese art, was mounted under him in Berlin in 1929. Between 1925 and 1939 he often stayed at Gustav Adolf (1882-1973), later King Gustav VI Adolf, King of Sweden, in his castle. A devoted Asianist collector, the King facilliatated meetings with him and Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978) and Osvald Sirén. Kümmel’s book on Chinese Bronzes appeared in 1928. He lectured at the University of Berlin as a professor of East Asian art history, and director of the Ethnographic Museum (Völkerkundemuseum) and the Museum of East Asian art (Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst). When the Nazis assumed power in Germany, Kümmel, a conservative and patriot, joined the Nazi party and was appointed Director General of the Prussian museums in Berlin. He dismissed those not in open alegience to the party (including Hermann Voss) replacing them with party stalwarts. A book on Japanese landscape painting appeared in 1939. Under the suggestion of Josef Goebbels (1897-1945), the Minister of Propaganda, Kümmel organized a “repatriation” of German art works in 1939 in the event of war. The so-called Kümmel Report formed a wish list of art the Nazi’s wanted for their new art museums. Kümmel’s two sons were both killed in the war. In February 1945 his office and research material were destroyed in a bombing. As the Russian army entered Berlin, Kümmel saw to it that soldiers understood where the art was stored inorder to ensure its survival. Much of the stored collection is today in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. He was interviewed by Douglas Cooper, then a British Intelligence officer and subsequently relieved of his duties in 1945. In retirement he organized exhibitions at Celle (1950) and Berlin (1952). He fell ill in 1951 and worn-torn Berlin lacking hospital beds, was flown by U.S. military transport to the Mainz University Hospital. There he died in Mainz in 1952. His students included Werner Speiser (1908-1965), director of the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne; Rose Hempel (1920-2009), Thomas Dexel (curator at the Metropolitan Museum in Braunschweig, Germany), Johanna Zick-Nissen (curator of Islamic Art at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin ), Gisela Armbruster (d. 1981) assistant professor in Heidelberg. Kümmel was among the first western art historians to speak Japanese and a respected Sinologist. However his complicity with Nazism has made his career infamous. His authoring of the three-volume, 500+ page “Kümmel Report” (a complete list of German art work that had been removed since 1500 [!]) “establish Kümmel as a leader among museum officials in the plundering campaign” (Petropoulos).

    Selected Bibliography

    [bibliography:] Walravens, Hartmut. Otto Kümmel.Bibliographien zur ostasiatischen Kunstgeschichte in Deutschland 3. Hamburg: Bell, 1984; Das Kunstgewerbe in Japan. Berlin: R. C. Schmidt, 1922; Chinesische Kunst: zweihundert Hauptwerke der Ausstellung der Gesellschaft für Ostasiatische Kunst in der Preussischen Akademie. Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1930; Die Kunst Ostasiens. Kunst des Ostens 4. Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1934.


    Petropoulos, Jonathan. The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 56-57; “Otto Kümmel.” Ostasien in Berlin: Biographische Notizen zu Personen, die zwischen 1905 und 1925 für die Ostasiatische Kunstabteilung der Berliner Museen bedeutungsvoll waren.;


    "Kümmel, Otto." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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