Jan Wirgin (1932-2020) obituary

Uta Lauer's picture

Jan Wirgin 韋俊 (1932 – 2020)

In Jan Wirgin, the world of East Asian art has lost a great scholar and gentleman. His passionate interest in the cultures of East Asia, China in particular, was aroused early through a childhood friend of his father, the eminent linguist and sinologist Bernard Karlgren (1892 – 1981). In the 1950s Jan Wirgin was enrolled at Stockholm University in art history and Chinese studies. Then as today the academic subject of East Asian art history was not taught at any university in Sweden. Despite this Wirgin immersed himself into East Asian art through the study of Asia-related objects in the National Museum as well as the legendary East Asian collection, formed by Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874 – 1960), the Crownprince and later King Gustav VI Adolf (1882 – 1973) and several other private donors. This was before the two collections were merged into the new Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Östasiatiska Museet) in 1963. Througout his career, Jan Wirgin adhered to this object-related, hands-on principle. In 1966 a Fulbright scholarship allowed him to join Hawaii University in Honolulu where he met Gustav Ecke (1896 – 1971), who was then working on classical Chinese painting. At that time, Jan Wirgin had already been curator at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities where his wonderful personality and profound learning contributed substantially to the expansion of, and the research on, the collection. His dissertation Sung Ceramic Designs of 1970 immediately became a classic and soon saw a second edition. It was published as a monograph of the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities. From 1977 onwards Jan Wirgin acted as chief editor of this important international scholarly journal.

In his position as curator and then from 1981 to 1998 as director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, he not only dedicated his exhibition projects to Chinese ceramics, his field of specialization, but also to bronzes, carpets, lacquers and did pioneering work on jades. It is to a large extent thanks to Jan Wirgin‘s courageous and diplomatic efforts that the collection of the museum was not transferred with all other non-European collections from Stockholm to a newly built museum in Gothenburg in 1997. Thus the museum could retain its profile as a historically grown and strategically formed collection of East Asian art and archaeology, including a comprehensive library, on the island of Skeppsholmen in the center of Stockholm. Jan Wirgin was fond of travelling and together with his wife, Margareta née Brunnberg, often visited countries in East and South-East Asia. He entertained personal and friendly ties with collectors and museums world-wide. For his tireless engagement as arbitrator of East Asian art and cultures, Wirgin was honoured in 1984 by the government of Thailand and elevated to „Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand“. In 1994 the government of Japan awarded him the prestigious „Order of the Rising Sun Gold Rays with Rosette“. He will be much missed as a person, a friend and colleague .

Uta Lauer